Rules & Regs: California Moves Toward Toilet-to-Tap, Australia Moves Away

In this month’s regulations update, rules are relaxed for onsite systems in an area along Chesapeake Bay, and California is working on new standards for use of recycled water
Rules & Regs: California Moves Toward Toilet-to-Tap, Australia Moves Away

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Because it contains 12 percent of the country’s population, California sets standards in many ways. Now, the state government is working on a standard for potable use of recycled water. 

On Oct. 6, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 574, which directs state agencies to develop regulations for direct potable reuse of recycled water by blending it with raw water in the pipes leading into a water filtration plant.

Under the new law, by Dec. 31, 2021, the California State Water Resources Control Board must adopt uniform criteria for augmenting raw water with recycled water, and it requires the board to establish a framework for the regulation of potable reuse projects by June 1, 2018. The law builds on a previous one that directed the water board to establish rules for recharging groundwater and adding recycled water to a reservoir. At the same time, the law prohibits the board from adopting criteria if its expert advisory panel determines there would be a threat to public health.

Supporters of the law pointed out the need for California to develop alternative sources of water to serve its population in the face of recurring droughts.

“California is a world leader in potable reuse, using highly purified recycled water for drinking-water purposes. The use of recycled water for nonpotable uses, such as agricultural and landscape irrigation, is already well-established and has been regulated for decades in California,” says Rep. Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, who introduced the bill in the Assembly.

This year, the city of San Diego announced plans for a multiyear and multibillion-dollar project to add recycled water to its reservoirs. The first phase is now being designed. When completed in 2021, it will produce 30 mgd. The second and third phases are projected to be in place by 2035 and will produce an additional 53 mgd. The total 83 mgd will be about one-third of the city’s water supply. Currently, the city imports about 85 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River and the river delta that feeds San Francisco Bay.

Some San Diego wastewater will be recycled for nonpotable uses such as irrigation. The rest will be sent to reservoirs but first will go through another water purification plant using ozone, biological activated carbon, membranes, reverse osmosis and UV equipment.

Meanwhile, a change in pricing may endanger water recycling projects in Australia. A 2,000-unit housing development in Sydney has what is said to be the world’s largest water recycling plant in a residential building. The plant recycles 97 percent of water used in the building. City water is used for drinking, but recycled water is used for almost everything else.

But now that project — and future projects — faces greatly increased costs because of a decision by the independent pricing and regulatory tribunal (known as IPART) that sets water rates. In a decision finalized in July, IPART says recyclers would no longer receive wholesale rates for water and sewer access. Instead, they will pay a price set to maintain the profits of the water supplier. That means every customer of a water recycler will be charged the prevailing retail rate minus an estimate of the savings they provide to the water supplier.

The size of rate increases for water recyclers is unclear. IPART calculated a fourfold increase in rates. Flow Systems, the company that built the recycling plant at the Sydney housing development, calculated it will pay more than 10 times the current rates.

A coalition of developers, government councils, environmentalists, academics and building certifiers made their opinion clear in May in a letter to Gladys Berejiklian, premier of the state of New South Wales, writing: “If the IPART determination is allowed to proceed in its current form, the recycled water market in urban areas is likely to be decimated.”

County commissioner fined for lack of onsite operating permit in South Dakota
After two years and a five-hour trial, a county official was found guilty of violating county zoning rules for operating an onsite wastewater system without an operating permit. The ordinance requires systems to be regularly pumped, inspected and issued permits.

When the trial was over, the judge ordered Pennington County Commissioner George Ferebee to pay a $200 fine.

The case turned on the amount of land involved. The prosecution says Ferebee was in violation because his system was on a lot smaller than 40 acres. Lots of that size and larger are exempt from the ordinance.

Ferebee claims his land totals 250 acres and that he never subdivided it since buying it 30 years ago. But, prosecutors say the land is legally comprised of four lots and says Ferebee’s system is on a lot of 12.22 acres.

Onsite inspections prove systems not to blame for pollution in Todd County, Minnesota
After a lengthy examination of onsite systems, it appears they are not to blame for pollution in about 25 lakes in Todd County in central Minnesota. The county is about 124 miles northwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and has 118 lakes.

The septic system inventory cost almost $812,000 and included five grants from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, says information from that agency and printed in The Osakis Review of Alexandria, Minnesota.

Inventories targeted phosphorus-sensitive lakes. Less than 5 percent of systems on 2,329 properties were out of compliance during the examination that lasted from 2011 through 2016. Test results on another 12 percent of properties were still pending while 83 percent were in compliance.

“Lake Osakis is polluted — 7,000 acres of pea soup,” says Chris Arens, Todd County land use planner. “The thought was that one of the large contributors to that was the septic systems around the lake because it’s highly developed.”

But, the inventory showed otherwise, and in one case, it killed an idea to build a large wastewater-collection pipe around one lake. In Todd County, an onsite system inspection only follows a property sale or a building permit, but the inventory convinced some people to willingly upgrade their onsite systems.

Maryland county relaxes rules for onsite systems along Chesapeake Bay

For a second time in 2017, the Harford County Council is considering legislation to relax rules on what can be built near onsite wastewater systems. The county is about 36 miles northeast of Baltimore and includes shoreline along Chesapeake Bay.

The legislation would remove a ban on the construction of swimming pools, outbuildings, driveways or additions that intrude into the area designated on a piece of property for the onsite system. This could mean the drainfield or land reserved for a replacement, reports The Baltimore Sun. The county health department would be empowered to grant waivers to the rule at its discretion, and the department supports the legislation.

“We have looked at the impact to public health, the environment, and in certain situations we feel that it would be OK for a waiver to be given and to allow paving over a system and their future repair areas,” said Julie Mackert, director of environmental health, during a public hearing in September.

The bill was sponsored by Councilman Joe Woods. He represents two areas in the county with long histories of failing septic systems. In the 1970s, the county tightened regulations for onsite systems, but in recent years, a succession of administrations and county councils have relaxed those rules, saying they infringed on property rights.

Support building for point-of-sale inspections in central Michigan
Support is building for point-of-sale inspections of onsite systems in central Michigan. It’s part of a plan to reduce bacteria levels in the Chippewa River, which flows for about 90 miles through central Michigan and joins other rivers that drain into Lake Huron.

Most recently, the city of Mount Pleasant agreed to the point-of-sale inspection rule proposed by the Central Michigan District Health Department. The rule must be approved by commissions governing all six counties in the health department district. But, the city would be almost entirely unaffected because all but a few properties are connected to a municipal sewer system, reports The Morning Sun of Alma, Michigan.

A transaction tax of $300 to $500 would be imposed at the time of the inspection. A local real estate agent calls this a money grab by the health department. He says real estate agents always recommend an inspection at the time of sale and says the rule would do nothing to improve the water quality of the river.

League of Women Voters help educate Michigan homeowners about their onsite systems
In Leelanau County in northwestern Michigan there is no rule specifying when a septic system must be inspected, and with county commissioners opposed to one, the responsibility has fallen to citizens. So, the county’s League of Women Voters scheduled a panel in September to inform citizens about onsite wastewater systems and how they should be maintained.

County commissioners voted down the latest attempt at a rule in July. That was only a proposal to form a committee that would have looked at onsite system issues with the possibility of enacting a point-of-sale rule. Tom Fountain, director of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, says he is worried about vacation rental homes that are often occupied by more people than the onsite system is designed to handle. One commissioner says real estate agents, not the county, should take on the responsibility of ensuring inspections.

County bordering Puget Sound approves fee for onsite systems
The Washington county that voted to repeal a fee for onsite wastewater systems has backtracked a bit.

Thurston County, which surrounds the capital city of Olympia and borders the southern end of Puget Sound, had enacted a $10 fee to fund management of onsite systems. The fee became a campaign issue, and in April, two county commissioners were seated who opposed the fee. It would have affected about 42,000 property owners.

Now, a version of the fee is back. In September, the county commission unanimously approved fees for onsite systems in the Henderson Inlet Shellfish Protection District. Revenue will fund the district’s work plan for onsite systems. From 1984 to 2005, the state health department restricted shellfish harvests in the inlet because of contamination by fecal coliform bacteria.

There will be a $10 charge for each additional residential onsite system on a property, and there are higher rates for larger, nonresidential systems. On average, most property owners will pay $40, although some will pay $100 or more, reports The Olympian. About 6,700 onsite systems will be affected by the ordinance.

Maryland campground owner forced to close, sues citing ignored consent order
In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department in Maryland ended swimming in the lake at Gail Litz’s campground because of high bacteria levels. In 2010, she lost the campground to a foreclosure. Now, she is close to a court trial for her lawsuit claiming that she lost the property because local governments didn’t act to solve wastewater pollution of the lake.

Bacteria counts in the lake were traced to failing onsite systems in the town of Goldsboro near the campground. Also in 1996, Goldsboro signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment to install a public sewer system. But, the town never did that and the state never enforced the order, reported the Bay Journal.

In 1985 and 1988, Goldsboro residents voted down a wastewater treatment plant even though the federal government would have funded 90 percent of the cost. Goldsboro residents would have paid between 39 and 62 cents per day, or $142 to $226 per year.

In September, a judge rejected a motion by the town to dismiss Litz’s lawsuit, thus clearing the way for a trial. The factual issues a jury must decide are whether pollution of the lake continued after the 1996 consent order and whether the town or county was responsible for any pollution, the judge writes in his ruling on the motion.

Next year, 22 years after the consent order, the 100-odd homes in Goldsboro will be connected to a $19 million wastewater plant built by the county in the nearby town of Greensboro.


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