Septic System Regulations for California Adopted

Authored in 1999 by former Assembly Member (and current state Senate candidate) Hannah Beth Jackson, AB 885 was signed into law in September 2000 to regulate the 1.2 million septic systems operating in California. The State Water Board was required to adopt regulations by January 2004, but after years of contentious hearings around the State, the process collapsed and regulations remained unwritten.

Heal the Ocean, Santa Barbara, and Heal the Bay, Santa Monica, filed a “friendly lawsuit” vs. theState Water Board in February 2011 to move the process forward on the development of standards. On Tuesday, in the State Water Board hearing room in Sacramento, Hillary Hauser, Executive Director of Heal the Ocean, and Heal the Bay science engineer Susie Santilena were elated to see the regulations finalized.

In announcing the successful conclusion of AB 885 regulation development, Hauser reported a happy, serendipitous side-note to Tuesday’s hearing in Sacramento. As environmental health directors, regional board officers, lobbyists and State Board staff left the hearing room and were standing outside in the hall, Hauser dialed AB 885 author Hannah-Beth Jackson on her cell phone, and held it up for everyone to “shout out” to her.

“It was amazing!” Hauser said. “Hannah-Beth happened to be in Sacramento – two blocks away! We all went to a popular lunch place to celebrate, and in came Hannah-Beth to salute everyone. Many of these people who had been working on her legislation had never met her. Now, 12 years later, the author of the bill shows up to see the finalization of her work. It turned into a party!”

Hauser said the truly satisfactory part of this celebration was that opposite sides gathered together and saluted each other for getting to a conclusion everyone could live with. “If only our federal government could be so non-partisan, wouldn’t that be great?” said Hauser. “The State of California is diverse,” Hauser explained. “What applies to Malibu or Santa Barbara does not necessarily apply to Shasta County.”

Heal the Ocean has been working for years on AB 885, knowing the environmental impact septic systems can have when they are improperly placed or improperly functioning. “We needed such regulations when we were hammering out the South Coast Beach Communities Septic to Sewer project,” (which includes Rincon),” said Hauser. “We needed such regulations as we watched the 303(d) list of impaired water bodies grow in the State.”

Because of its experience in working with Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services on septic-to-sewer conversions in Santa Barbara County, HTO hired former County EHS director Rick Merrifield to help give the environmental groups a realistic grasp on “what should be regulated and what should not,” Hauser said. As a member of the original AB 885 steering committee at the start of the process in 2000, Merrifield also had historical knowledge to help facilitate agreement between the environmental groups and the environmental health officers in the State during the workshops.

During the 18-month process, Heal the Ocean spearheaded the addition of a financial aid section, which outlines a State Board mini-loan program to assist property owners in complying with the AB885 policy.

For more information:

Hillary Hauser, Heal the Ocean (805) 965-7570 Susie Santilena

Heal the Bay (310) 451-1500 x 189

Fact Sheet:

Here is a snapshot view of what AB 885 will mean to septic system owners:

There will be four “Tiers,” or categories, of septic system (also called Onsite Wastewater Treatment System, or OWTS). Each Tier is defined by condition, reliability in operation, soil percolation rates, and location (i.e. within 600’ setback of impaired water body, distance from public water well or vernal pool or surface water, etc.), and other criteria. Some OWTS usage will be regulated by TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) development for an impaired water body, which identifies the OWTS as contributing to the impairment and assigning a “maximum daily load” to its pollutant. Local Agency Management Plans (“LAMPS”) will be developed, with some guidelines outlined in AB 885 regulations for environmental health directors overseeing septic system use in their individual counties


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