Proposed septic rules for the region could mean extra cost to homeowners and businesses, increased regulation and more work for local government.
San Luis Obispo County and Atascadero officials are concerned about the new state proposal, which focuses primarily on new septic systems throughout much of the state.
The new rules include requirements for extensive monitoring plans to test whether nitrates are entering the groundwater. Officials say they may have to find ways to charge homeowners and businesses with septic systems in order to cover the cost.
The county estimates it would cost $500,000 to develop a monitoring plan. Atascadero officials weren’t sure of a cost estimate.
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The issue was debated in San Luis Obispo last week, when the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board said local agencies overseeing septic users must take a closer look at how septic discharge affects groundwater quality. The proposal is set to go before the state for final approval in about six months.
“We’re not happy with the way the decision went,” Atascadero City Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said.
“Their rules will be very expensive for us, and we don’t see the need for them.”
The crux of the problem, local agencies say, is they already have studies in place to monitor nitrates in the groundwater. Those studies show there are safe levels.
The county health department tests water quality for nitrates when new wells are drilled in unincorporated areas.
Atascadero’s water utility also samples its wells for nitrates annually, showing averages below the state’s drinking water standards, utility officials said.
The new rules were presented as amendments to the Central Coast board’s existing basin plan, targeting its 300-mile-long coastal jurisdiction from southern San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to the northern part of Ventura County.
The county has 24,000 septic systems including commercial, agricultural and residential users. Atascadero has 5,000 households on septic systems. Its businesses are connected to sewer systems.
Requirements say agencies that issue permits for septic users must file their test results on discharge with the board. The rules apply to septic systems issued on new permits.
“But eventually everyone will be touched by it,” Atascadero Public Works Director Russ Thompson said, noting that anytime someone needs to upgrade their system, their septic tank would then fall under the new rules.
It also prohibits people from building secondary residences, such as granny units, on lots less than 2 acres unless the agency can prove the discharge is safe.
Another issue, Thompson said, is that septic users aren’t charged monthly like those connected to sewer. So there’s no income to fund the board’s desired studies.
But water board enforcement supervisor Harvey Packard said the board only wants agencies to streamline what they’re already doing.
“We’re saying let’s get that down in writing and formally allow the (agency) to make those personalizations official,” Packard said.
Still, in a letter to the board contesting the changes, county officials said focusing on the new monitoring tasks would cost the equivalent of five full-time positions.
“The county is very concerned about your agency requiring the outlay of this large amount of money during this time of financial crisis,” Environmental Health Specialist Barry Tolle wrote.