|Lloyds postings to SepTAC 2000-2001
Heres what I think about Marin countys present septic standards. Its taken me a while to get this out and I am writing it up because I can give everyone my background and explain how I came to these beliefs. I also sense that Phil and other county or EHS people realize that Im not blaming them for the present situation, and hope they will take this for what its worth as constructive input.
Thesis: Marin countys septic regulations are not based on reality (and if other California counties have similar standards, then they are just as far off). Septic systems are being mandated in Marin that are unnecessarily hi-tech, disruptive to the environment, wasteful of resources, and punitive to any homeowner who is not a millionaire.
How did I come to this conclusion? Ill give you my background in matters septic, divided into the following subject matter. Since its a bit much to read all of it you may want to skip some parts.
- Down the Road
- My experience as a builder
- The Questa Plan, a waste of $500,000 taxpayer money (orchestrated by EHS) for a poorly-conceived plan for Bolinas in the early 90s
- The Septic Systems Owners Manual
- The Beauty of Gravity
- Marin Standards are Unreasonable
- Repair As IsTim & Wendys $50,000 Septic system (November, 2000)
1. Down the Road (about a year and a half ago)
I live on the Bolinas Mesa on a dirt road. One day heavy trucks started rolling down Evergreen Road. They went on and on. What was it? The neighbors were constructing a mound. Why? They had recently bought a 70-year old house and were going to add on 300 square feet. The family consisted of man, woman, small child.
I knew about mounds but I never witnessed the construction (and destruction) close-up. Treecutters came in and. along with heavy bulldozer work, took out some large trees. Truck after truck came in with gravel, all of it mined from some unfortunate riverbed. The road got torn up. The mound was huge, with elaborate piping, risers, and pumps overkill for a small addition. It looks out of place and out of proportion on the landscape. Granted, the system was probably in need of fixing, but it didnt need a $35,000 fix.
Now this was one block from my house, which I built in 1971. City Sewer Service installed my standard gravity-fed septic system for about $2500, and with regular inspections and pumping it has worked flawlessly for 30 years. How come someone down the road needed anything different? Whats wrong with this picture?
Id seen mound after mound appearing in Bolinas, but this one really pissed me off. I decided I would go in and see Ed Stewart and ask him what in the **** was going on. I had been watching the disturbing direction in which he had been leading EHS over the years, and this was just too much. A week later, the announcement came that Ed had been relieved of duty, so I never made the visit.
2. My Experience as a Builder
I worked for about ten years as a builder in the 60s and 70s. I built two houses for my family, one in Mill valley, one in Big Sur and I worked on several big-timber houses. I also built geodesic domes (thats another story!). In Big Sur I built my own septic tank. (When I visited the lady who now lives in that house, the tank was still working, 23 years later.) So I understand the rudiments of building (and plumbing) and if nothing else it means I can ask relevant questions when talking to people in the building trades.
3. The Questa Plan
In 1989 Bolinas got right to the brink of a publicly-funded 7 million dollar septic plan for 300 houses on the Bolinas Mesa. This plan was orchestrated by EHS and it was such a poorly-conceived and insensitive plan that it still outrages many of us. Heres what happened:
Grant money was available from (I believe) Clean Water legislation. EHS had concluded that Bolinas septic systems were malfunctioning and by the time I became aware of what was happening, EHS, Questa Engineering (EHS designated engineers of the time), Regional, and a small group of Bolinas people were shepherding the town toward a plan that would upgrade all 300 houses. (There were maybe 10 failing systems.) I called up my builder friends and we started having Saturday morning meetings. The builders said right away that the whole thing was bogus. We started fighting the plan
As the months dragged on, the town got its proposal: a STEP Septic Tank Effluent Pumping system, in which each house has a tank, and effluent is pumped to a separate location. In all other STEP systems that we could find, effluent was pumped to say, a farmers field on the edge of town. Bolinas had no such adjacent land, so the plan called for community leachfields, where grant money would give everyone a new tank with pump and and then buy up (or condemn) vacant Mesa land for leachfields. That is, leachfields for anywhere from 5 to 20 houses would be dumped here and there in the residential neighborhood on the Mesa. My friend Drake found out he was to have effluent from 20 houses dumped on the land next to his. Thanks a lot!
To show people in town where this was leading, our group performed a bit of guerilla theater: we took yellow construction tape out and on a Sunday morning roped off the proposed leachfield locations and put up signs saying Community Leachfield. People would drive by and slam on the brakes. Jaws dropped. It was obvious to everyone that this was a DUMB plan. >From that point on we were able to rally people to shoot down the plan, but it was close.
I also got an insight in to how a lot of grants work. Systems that work fine are deemed to be polluting in order to qualify for grant money. I learned the phrase non-cost effective, an element of design intended to use up all available grant money. Grant money is a fat deal for engineers. I also began to see grants like this as being great freebies for white, middle-to-upper income homeowners living in the suburbs. I kept thinking about grant money that should go to people who really needed it . . .
Questa Engineering collected $500,000 for design of this plan. (By the way, I have about a two foot-wide batch of papers, newspapers articles, and meeting notes from this period which I originally saved in the hopes that a grand jury or anyone else would want to do some research on this questionable use of public funds.) Note: $500,000 would have easily fixed every truly failing system on the Mesa andinstalled road drainage that is our biggest problem!
EHS was furious with Bolinas for scuttling the plan and at that time started playing hardball with every septic application, and has done the same ever since. In later years, a contractor told me Ed Stewart said to him, Every system in Bolinas is failing. Heaven help the Bolinas homeowner doing a remodel or dealing with an upgrade or failed leachfield!
In combatting this plan we found out that there was little non-technical septic info available, so I decided, since I was a publisher, to do a book on the subject.
4. The Septic Systems Owners Manual
It took me over 8 years to get the book done. Every expert had a different opinion about all matters septic and I had a hard time finding a balance. I would keep putting the book down for some months, then come back to it. In assembling info I talked to maybe a dozen of what I felt to be the top engineers and soils scientists in the USA. (If any of you dont have the book, email your address and well send you one.) And I discovered a wonderful thing about septic systems while working on the book:
5. The Beauty of Gravity
The CONVENTIONAL septic system is powered by gravity. No pumps, no working parts, no mounds. Water-borne waste flows to the tank by gravity and effluent exits the tank to the drainfield by gravity. This all goes on silently, underground, and if things work properly, the soil community purifies the effluent and returns clean water to the water table. Its practical, ecological, and efficient and with a minimum of care, will work for decades.
6. Marin Standards are Absurd
Dont get me started! Ill let the examples at the beginning and end of this diatribe speak for themselves, but I do want to say something about repairs:
I want the county to have a category called Repair-As-Is. If the system fails, you clean out the tank, replace bad fittings and dig a new leachfield. Which will probably last longer than the 30-40 years that it took the present one to fail. And you educate homeowners as to how to keep the system healthy: sensible household habits and periodic tank inspections and pumpings.
In our research we discovered a town in southern California with similar upgrade standards to Marins. An enterprising guy has been digging new leachfields for people by hand, where there has been a leachfield failure. No permit! I talked to one such homeowner. It cost him about $700 for the labor, gravel, and pipe. He had his tank pumped, inspected, and tees replaced and he expects decades more of functionality. That as opposed to $30,000 . . .
8. Winneberger Says Health Hazard is (Largely) Nonsense
In all the experts I talked to, two of them seemed extraordinarily knowledgeable and intelligent. One was George Tchabanglous, author of the thousand-page textbook, Small and Decentralized Wastewater Management Systems, the other wasJohn H. (Timothy) Winneberger, author of Septic Systems, A Consultants Toolkit. Winneberger is a PhD, botanist, plant physiologist, and researched septic systems for the FHA. He is one of the grand old men in the field, and is known for advocating on-site sewage disposal as opposed to sewers for small towns. Winneberger says his 12 years of research concluded that claims of health hazards from failing septic systems are way overblown, that accusations of pollution are more political than scientific, that there is a huge amount of misinformation in the field. He says there is just not the scientific evidence that people get ill from failing septic systems. Nitrogen just does not want to travel through soils. Neither do bacteria or viruses . . . (but) its really immaterial because the accusation is all thats needed . . . there is no scientific follow-up to put these guys (engineers) in their place . . . they earn salaries . . . they are licensed . . . and they can say anything they want to and they do . . . they have everything going their way . . .
When I get a chance Ill talk to Winneberger some more and get his opinions in a more cohesive form. But you get the gist.
9. Tim & Wendys Great Septic Adventure
Tim is a carpenter and Wendy runs a catering business. They work hard and do not have family money. They were able to sell their house in Stinson Beach and buy a piece of land in Bolinas and Tim is building their house right now. To comply with EHS requirements, it has cost Tim $50,000 for his septic system! There ARE special considerations (a gully behind the house and therefore the need to pump effluent to a different part of the property). But what was required was so absurd as to boggle the imagination: a 1/2 acre mound. It has put Tim and Wendy in a tough financial position. This occurred in November, 2000.
Things are seriously out of whack septic-wise in Marin. Not that all mounds and other alternative systems are unnecessary, but this technology is being required in many, many unwarranted situations. We have a chance to combine the best of the tried and true with the real advances of recent times here in Marin, and I hope that is one of the directions our committee includes in its recommendations.
I recently asked a friend about being forthright in my thoughts on the septic situation in Marin county and his advice was to speak your mind and live with the heat. So here goes:
In the last decade or so, the septic system field (in Marin and I would imagine a lot of other places) has been taken over by engineers and regulators who have formed a symbiotic relationship that:
- Pays engineers excessive fees
- Creates an ever-increasing regulatory bureaucracy
- Costs homeowners major sums of money in both permit fees and construction costs
It works this way:
Engineers write the regulations that enact the ordinances that mandate the systems that require their services.
Witness the fact that Questa Engineering Corporation was hired by the county to prepare the alternative system regulations in the early 90s. Does this strike anyone other than me as not only odd, but as a conflict of interest?
We now have a situation where the simple gravity-powered septic system, which has worked more or less adequately for the better part of a century in America, is deemed unsuitable in many many situations. This works for the engineers, this works for the bureaucrats, and this works for the septic construction industry. This does not work for homeowners.
So if homeowners try to get the regs back to more reasonable standards, they are going to be confronted by engineers and other professionals in the field who have a vested interest in seeing that things remain complex. Of COURSE if you ask an engineer* whether dual leachfields are necessary, he is going to reply in the affirmative. Dont engineers charge fees of $5000-7000 to design systems that include dual LFs, as well as other complex components?
If, in SepTAC, we are able to remedy these excesses, we will have done good work. If, on the other hand, we get blocked by the cartel currently running things, it will be an opportunity lost.
Pipeline #2 will be my take on dual leachfields.
* Im not referring to ALL engineers (but to a sizeable body of them).
So I called the county, and I said, Do you realize, that Ive been forced to haul in 2 full transfer loads of double-washed pea gravel from the Russian River for my septic system?"
He had to install a $45,000 septic system for his new house (incl. $4000 county fees) on 5 acres of land in Bolinas last year. Tims dual leachfield is close to half an acre: 8 80' long leach lines. Tim was talking about the ecological ironies here.
Several people have said we shouldnt make too much out of the dual leachfield issue, that there are a lot of other things to deal with in recommending changes to the regulations.
However I DO want to pursue this issue, for these reasons:
- Requiring dual leachfields is symptomatic of the current state-of-the-art bloated septic systems that have been appearing in Marin in the last decade.
- If a septic system is properly maintained and serviced, one leachfield can work just fine for a very long time. Mine (not pressure-dosed) is over 30 years old and there are no problems. There is no reason to assume a LF will fail.
- There is debate about the usefulness of dual leachfields (and these are caveats that I intend to include in the 3rd printing of our septic systems book):
a) Most people forget to turn the valve.
b) Some people knowledgeable in the field point out that when you switch to LF #2, the biomat (the living filter of microorganisms) in LF #1 dies.
- The dual LF obviously uses twice as much space and materials.
- There are people who now claim they can restore failed leachfields. That is, fix the problem and provide a healthy drainfield in the same space. One such system is the Terralift Soil Loosener. It wouldnt be hard to check out these claims.
There are also reportedly new devices that can make a tank work better. Orencos Advantex filter is said to produce a high-quality effluent and to cut leachfield requirements in half. SepTech has a system including bacterial insertion and an effluent filter. If these things work (and it sounds to me as if they do), the regs have gone in exactly the wrong direction with doubling LF requirements.
I would like to somehow see a strong element of common sense go into getting the regs back to a more sane state. I would also like to see our subcommittee on regs sit down with a few builders and people with experience in the field (not necessarily engineers), and attempt to come up with some nuts and bolts recommendations. Since my time (and that of others on the subcommittee) is limited, I suggest we get Pat Gill to assist us in doing this; he has the expertise and the experience. He is also not from Marin, so he has a more objective picture of these matters.
At the last SepTAC we saw a presentation by EHS and a local engineer identifying soil types and groundwater contamination in selected parts of Marin on a large map. Bolinas, where I have lived for 30 years, was characterized as having poor soil and a groundwater problem.
This has been EHS modus operandi in Bolinas for most of the last decade. Unsuitable soil/groundwater problem, ergo mounds. There are probably 20 or more ugly, land-disrupting, resource-intensive mounds in Bolinas, marring the landscape. The EHS and the engineers say theyre necessary.
I want to say something as a person who has lived with septic systems for almost 40 years, as someone who has studied septic systems in general, AND as someone who is a layman, and places great value in COMMON SENSE. I am not persuaded that experts are always right and, in fact, the most troublesome* people I have worked with as authors have been PhDs. Ive often said I dont trust people with initials behind their names (not in ALL cases, obviously), and I always find it useful to view their pronouncements with a common sense perspective.
Bolinas has been a town for over 100 years. There are houses here that are 50-75-100 years old with septic systems that have not proven to be a health hazard. Further, Bolinas water supply comes from Arroyo Hondo, a deep canyon on GGNRA land without a single house above or remotely near it, so even were Bolinas groundwater polluted, the towns water supply would not be affected whatsoever.
Due to past EHS policies we (still) have a bunch of guys saying the soil in much of Marin is unsuitable, and that gravity-fed leachfields are no longer allowable: we have a very expensive and resource-intensive pattern that provides big fees to engineers and big fees to EHS.**
The common-sense view: there is not, nor has there ever been a health hazard in Bolinas attributable to failing septic systems. Mounds are by and large not necessary in Bolinas, nor are they necessary in many cases in Marin where they are presently mandated.
* By troublesome I mean they didnt really know that they were talking about.
** EHS fees are way high. Does it strike anyone else as weird that EHS is supported by its own fees? Its like a mom and pop store. Are they likely to be in favor of simpler septic systems if it means their fees will be substantially less?
Three dot journalism . . .
I have a growing sense of foreboding that some of the most significant things to come out of SepTAC will be more regulations, more inspections, more bureaucracy, and higher costs for homeowners and taxpayers.
We do not have health hazards attributable to septic systems in Marin county. If we do, will someone please point them out . . .
I really dont think we need to inspect every system in the county. I dont think the county should go out and do any inspections at all, unless it comes to their attention that theres something wrong . . .
The proposal by Marc sounds confusing to me. I dont think we should monitor the source. We should monitor waterways to see if theres as problem, then zero in on the source.
The proposal for inspections should be tossed. Do anyone think homeowners will voluntarily agree to pay $300 a year to have their systems inspected? Using dye for tracing with every system? AND, if such a proposal goes through, doesnt it mean a lot of income for engineers,and fees for EHS?
SepTAC seems to blithely roll along as if septic systems are (presently or potentially) hazardous to human health (and as if homeowners are going to want to foot the bills for increased regulation). I have read the excerpts from studies published by the EPA, showing instances of pollution by septic systems. When (with my limited time) I tried to follow up and get full details on these studies, I found a curious absence of information. One of the studies was extremely bizarre, involving the use of radioactive material as tracers. (I think it would make a great county research subject for someone to investigate these studies and to make a determination based on all available info as to whether sss actually transmit diseases.
I also have fears that because SepTAC is composed of so many public officials, theres an inherent bias towards beefing up regulatory agency roles . . .
The Grand Jury missed a couple of big things wrong in Marin, septic-wise:
- The high-tech mound/sand filter/dual leachfield standards in Marin are too expensive, energy-intensive, and ecologically destructive when you take into account the whole picture. They have been perpetrated by local engineers who have crafted the regulations.
- The engineers in Marin have a big fat conflict of interest. They have worked tightly with EHS in establishing the standards that bias things in the direction of complexity, higher costs, and high engineering fees. Does anyone besides me have anything to say on this issue? HeLLO!!
I wish I had solutions. I wish I had more time to put in on this. I feel like the positions Ive taken in many e-mails are close to the wishes and desires of many many homeowners, and its a point of view (simplicity, gravity) that I truly hope makes it through the SepTAC process.
Guest Column Pt Reyes Light, December 2002
IT AINT BROKE
About two years ago I was asked to serve as the homeowners representative on SepTAC, the county septic committee. I hoped that I could interject some common sense into the unfair, high-tech, high cost state of septic system technology in Marin county. Right off the bat I learned how difficult it is to get things done in large meetings, especially with everyone having different perspectives. There were (often unfounded) biases, and many people did not understand on-site wastewater systems.
Over the past 15 or so years, Marin county engineers and Environmental Health Services (EHS) have worked together to set up standards that severely limit the use of the tried and true gravity fed septic system in the county, requiring homeowners to install above-ground leachfields called mounds. The pretext for this is alleged health hazards of septic systems, but to my knowledge there is not one documented case of a health hazard created by septic systems in Marin county history.
The current people who run EHS have been saddled with a modus operandi set up by former staff that was so out of line that the Grand Jury called it The Failure of Management of EHS A Crisis for Marin County. So the problem has deep roots. I was also surprised to find out that EHS is not funded by the county. The EHS budget is comprised completely of fees they charge. If things were simpler, their fees would be less.
Marin engineers charge large fees for designing mound systems. The more expensive the system, the higher the design fees. Naturally they defend the use of mounds and other expensive solutions. There is also conflict of interest: Marin engineers meet regularly with EHS to discuss septic matters, and a prominent local firm was actually hired by the county in the early 90s to write the alternative systems regulations. So we have local engineers writing the regulations that mandate the systems that require their services. (The Grand Jury missed this one.)
The CONVENTIONAL septic system is powered by gravity. No pumps, no working parts, no electricity, no imported gravel, no mounds. Water-borne waste flows to the tank by gravity and effluent exits the tank to the drainfield by gravity. This goes on silently, underground, and if things work properly, the soil microorganisms purify the effluent and return clean water to the water table. Its practical, ecological, and efficient and with a minimum of care, will work for decades. No engineers required.
Mounds use a tremendous amount of resources: double-washed gravel mined from the some unfortunate riverbed, trucks and gas for transport, and lots of expensive hardware They require pumps and electricity to operate, they are unsightly and occupy otherwise usable land, and they dont work well in the rain. Someone recently termed Wisconsin The State of 40,000 Failed Mounds. In Marin, engineers are mandating mounds in areas where gravity systems have worked for decades with no problems.
Requiring dual leachfields is symptomatic of current bloated state-of-the-art Marin septic requirements. If a septic system is properly maintained and serviced, one leachfield can work just fine for a very long time.
I dont really know what will come out of SepTAC. It sounds as if there will be SOME improvements, but my overall take is that the end result will be more bureaucracy, more expense for homeowners, and the continuing use of high-tech expensive systems.
The proposal for inspecting every county system should be tossed. $300+ per year for each homeowner? Using dye for tracing with every system? Requiring that each tank have risers and be completely watertight is going to be expensive. It will mean more income for engineers, and more fees for EHS. There are not health problems that warrant such expenditure. If it aint broke . . .
Its time for homeowners in Marin get involved, to keep a common sense perspective, and to not be cowed by engineers alleged expertise.
Lloyd Kahn, Publisher
Shelter Publications, Inc.
P.O. Box 279
285 Dogwood Road
Bolinas, CA, 94924 USA