Silly Septic System Standards Harm Rural Napa

State Turdometrics Regulations Negatively Impact Rural Napa County Residents

by Peter Kilkus

 In 2009 new rules regulating on-site wastewater treatment systems — also known as septic tanks — were being proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). If the state approved the new rules, some speculated the cost could run into the thousands of dollars. This was a hugely incorrect underestimate. Now in 2019 the cost of a new standard septic system will run at least $20,000 - and an “engineered” system will run at least $45,000.

The issue of septic tanks’ impact on the environment popped up after certain conditions developed in Santa Monica Bay in Southern California causing concern among wealthy landowners there. This prompted the SWRCB to develop new regulations to prevent that kind of thing from happening again, despite the fact that the conditions in Santa Monica were nothing like the rest of California

In 2009 Supervisor Diane Dillon called the proposed regulations onerous because they propose a one size fits all solution. Dillon said. “They want to apply the same regulations to areas that don’t have a dirty water problem. We do not have dirty water problems.” The Napa County Board of Supervisors in 2009 took a unanimous position opposing the proposed regulations for a host of reasons. In a letter to the SWRCB, supervisors declared the regulations to be a “solution in search of a problem.”

Fast-forward to 2019. The rules were passed, everyone suffers, with no compelling environmental benefits. And the difference between needing to install an engineered system rather than a standard system? A few inches of dirt in the drip (leach) field! The rules require that the leach field have normal dirt down to three feet deep. If the soil becomes rocky, i.e., rocks mixed with dirt, an engineered system is required. In the rural areas of Napa County, especially in the hills around Lake Berryessa, it is difficult to find areas where the soil does not become rocky before a three foot depth is reached. 

In a recent septic system installation on sixty acres of land three miles from Lake Berryessa, a standard septic system (no electricity or special pumping systems needed) that had been operating well for more than 25 years, had to be replaced with a $45,000 engineered system because the available leach field sites only had normal dirt down to less than three feet. The rules did not allow for installing a much larger leach field to compensate for the lack of soil depth. If the dirt had been a few inches deeper a standard system could have been installed for $20,000. That’s a $25,000 cost difference for about 6 inches of soil depth - $4,000 per inch!

Supervisor Dillon complained about the “one size fits all” approach in 2009, and now in 2019 it’s a costly reality. And I challenge anyone to find a knowledgeable engineer, installation company, or county inspector who does not consider the present septic system rules anything but unscientific bureaucratic overkill - about $45,000 worth.    

1 site original copy
5 Tank 1
7 Initial assembly1 copy
9.5 System filter

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Initial System Test Video (above)

16 Septic control box
15 Site final copy

How a “standard” septic system works

1. Wastewater, a polite term for sewage, from toilets, baths and sinks flows into a single septic tank. Gravity allows sewage to flow from house to tank. No electrical connections are required.

2. A septic tank holds the wastewater allowing solids to settle as sludge. Lighter liquids like oil float to the top as scum. Wastewater remains in the middle. Baffles at the inlet and outlet allow only the separated wastewater to flow out to a leach field (drain field). Buildup of scum and sludge are removed every 2-5 years.

3. A distribution box channels wastewater into perforated pipes. A drain field takes the wastewater and allows it to leach into the ground where bacteria decompose the remaining elements of the cleaner waste water. Disease-causing organisms, organic matter and most nutrients are removed. The clarified wastewater is distributed into the earth.


 Standard Septic System Control

How an “engineered” septic system works

1. An engineered system includes a treatment unit, one or two processing tanks, and a control panel with a programmable dosing timer. In the treatment process, filtered wastewater from the clear zone in the processing tank is pumped to a distribution manifold in the treat­ment unit.

2. The effluent percolates down through the textile media, where aerobic (in the presence of oxygen) bacterial treatment occurs. The textile media’s complex fiber structure provides tremendous water-holding capacity and offers an extremely large surface area for biomass attachment. A percentage of the treated effluent is re-circu­lated for dilution and additional treatment, and the remaining treated effluent is discharged by pumps under pressure for dispersal to a drip field.

3. A drip field takes the wastewater and allows it to leach into the ground for bacterial decomposition. This is the same final process as that for a standard system except that it is pressurized and three independent electrical connections are required - two for the pumps and one for the control system.    

16 Septic control box

Engineered Septic System Control

**********                       © Peter Kilkus 2018