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History of Septic System Repair Regulations in Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz County has over 22,000 septic systems, 13,000 of which are in the San Lorenzo River Watershed. The San Lorenzo Watershed has the highest density of septic systems of any comparable area in the State. The majority of septic systems in the county are over 25 years old and are located on parcels that could not fully meet today's standards for installation of a new septic system due to small lot size, close proximity to a stream, high groundwater, steep slope, or clay soil. Many of these systems have already been repaired or replaced at least once. However, many of the repairs were done prior to 1980 when there were little or no standards for septic system repairs. There were no minimum size requirements and systems were allowed to go in very deep, with little regard to soil conditions or winter groundwater levels.

Poor septic system conditions in the San Lorenzo Valley during the 1970's and early 1980's led to frequent failures, high bacteria levels in the River and elevated nitrate levels which threatened the City of Santa Cruz water supply. As a result, in 1982, the Regional Board stepped in and issued Resolution 82-10, an order prohibiting any new development and prohibiting the continued use of existing septic systems in the San Lorenzo Valley. The State wanted the area sewered. But, in 1985, the proposed sewer project failed due to high cost, lack of grant funds, and substantial disagreement in the community about whether sewers were really needed. In spite of this, the State still felt sewers were needed and the prohibition on septic systems remained in effect.

In 1986, County Environmental Health proposed a compromise solution, whereby septic systems could be allowed to continue to be used, provided that they were upgraded over time to meet a minimum set of standards necessary to improve the water quality in the River. The County would provide ongoing inspection of systems and water quality monitoring to ensure that immediate problems were found and corrected. The Valley community supported this idea and the program has been in place since 1986. However, it took a lot of time and demonstration of good results before the State was willing to lift the prohibitions. The State also insisted that the repair standards be made more stringent than the County originally proposed, particularly with regard to minimum groundwater separation. In May, 1995, the State Regional Board lifted the septic system prohibitions and adopted the San Lorenzo Wastewater Management Plan, including the repair standards as they substantially are today.

Since the County began the program in 1986, septic system failure rates have dropped from 15% to 5%. Some 2300 systems have been repaired and 85% of these have been able to fully meet the repair standards for standard system. Although water quality in the River has improved somewhat and the failure rates have declined, ongoing efforts among the County, the contractors and the property owners, will be needed to upgrade the rest of the systems over time. Repair of most of these systems will be relatively straight forward. However, some 5-10% of the system upgrades will present major challenges for the owner, the designer, the contractor, and County staff to design and install a workable system that meets minimum requirements for protection of water quality.