How Septic Systems Are Regulated
The State and County have several regulations to prevent septic systems from causing pollution or presenting a serious public health hazard. The State Health and Safety Code requires an appropriate means of sewage disposal for all homes and businesses. It also prohibits any discharge of sewage on the ground surface. The Health and Safety Code designates the County Health Officer as the person for ensuring proper sewage disposal in the county. The Health Officer delegates these responsibilities to the Environmental Health Service.
The State Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) is responsible for ensuring that septic systems do not cause pollution of surface or groundwater. The Regional Board has developed many standards for proper septic system installation, including: groundwater separation, stream and well setbacks, slope limitations, minimum system sizing requirements, and allowances for use of alternative technologies. These standards are contained in the Water Quality Control Plan for the Central Coast Region (Basin Plan). All the provisions of the San Lorenzo Wastewater Management Plan have also been adopted into the Basin Plan. The Regional Board has conditionally delegated authority to oversee and regulate the installation of septic systems to the County Environmental Health Service through a memorandum of understanding. The County must comply with the minimum standards contained in the Basin Plan in order to keep the authority to permit septic systems.
The County Board of Supervisors has adopted Section 7.38 of the County Code (the Sewage Disposal Ordinance) which specifies the standards for septic system installation in Santa Cruz County. In addition to the standards for new or expanded septic systems, the Code allows some specific reduction of standards for the repair of existing septic systems. Environmental Health has developed a specific set of Standards and Procedures for the Repair and Upgrade of Septic Systems. Many critical parts of these standards were developed through negotiations between the County and the Regional Board as a condition of lifting the Regional Board's prohibition on septic systems in the San Lorenzo Valley. Environmental Health also has developed other policies and procedures for implementation of the Sewage Disposal Ordinance. In the last five years these policies and the repair standards have been circulated to consultants, contractors and members of the Board of Supervisors for input at least 30 days prior to implementation.
Any installation, replacement, or significant repair of any part of a septic system requires a permit from Environmental Health. The proposed work is designed by a consultant, septic contractor, or the property owner, and described on the septic permit application form and a detailed plot plan. Environmental Health staff review the application and relevant information for the area on soils, groundwater depth, and site conditions in order to determine that the proposal meets the standards as established by the State and the County. If inadequate information exists, additional soil or groundwater testing may also be needed prior to approval of the application. Once the application is approved, the Environmental Health Inspector conducts several progress inspections of the installation to ensure the work is done as indicated and that it is in compliance with standards. Minor changes to an approved permit may be allowed to accommodate actual field conditions encountered during the installation process. However, the discovery of soil conditions or high groundwater levels substantially different than those expected may require the work to stop until the project can be redesigned to meet standards.
There are many parcels in Santa Cruz County which have site constraints that cannot meet the standards for a conventional septic system. However, a nonstandard system may be permitted on many of these properties using either alternative technologies or special operating conditions (such as water conservation) to overcome the constraint(s). Because these systems require added maintenance and oversight to ensure they function properly, County staff inspect them on at least an annual basis and charge an annual fee on the tax bill to pay the cost of those inspections. Prior to approval and installation of a nonstandard system, the property owner must sign an Acknowledgment of Nonstandard System which indicates that they recognize and accept the special operating conditions required for use of such a system. A notice describing these operating conditions is also recorded on the deed to notify any prospective buyer of the special conditions and limitations, if any, of the sewage disposal system serving that property. Standards and procedures for use of nonstandard systems are contained in the Basin Plan, the Sewage Disposal Ordinance and the Repair Standards.
Septic system standards and procedures have evolved significantly in Santa Cruz County during the last ten years. Further changes are likely needed to make the procedures as effective as possible and to take advantage of new technologies that are emerging. It is critical that County Environmental Health, the State Regional Water Quality Control Board, Consultants, Contractors, Realtors, and Property Owners all work together to implement workable septic system design and installation procedures in order to provide property owners with a well functioning septic system that will last many years and not threaten public health or harm the environment. For more information please view the Septic Users Manual.