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OWTS (On-Site Treatment System) potential leaks into groundwater
OWTS (On-Site Treatment System) potential leaks into groundwater

Let's Talk Septic Systems

May 3, 2018
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County

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Hey, West County—it’s time to talk about something that is often avoided at the dinner table, and left out of polite conversations. Namely, septic systems. Or, as my three-year-old would put it, poop.

More than a month ago, Permit Sonoma released a revised Onsite Wastewater Treatment System (OWTS) Manual that’s available for public comment and feedback. 


Board of Supervisors Consideration: The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will be considering the revised onsite waste treatment systems (OWTS) manual at an upcoming meeting onMay 22, 2018. If the Board approves the revision, the County will then submit a revised Local Area Management Program (LAMP) and OWTS Manual to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB).

What is the OWTS Manual?  The Onsite Waste Treatment Systems (OWTS) Manual provides the policy, procedural and technical details governing individual onsite wastewater treatment systems (also referred to as septic systems). State law mandates the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) adopt standards for regulation of onsite waste treatment systems (OWTS). The OWTS Manual complies with the State Water Resources Control Board OWTS Policy Tier 2 Local Area Management Program (LAMP) requirements.

Revised OWTS Manual – April 27, 2018 - The revised OWTS Manual that is being considered.

Entire Document (PDF: 7.84 MB
Clean Version
Strikeout-Underline-Annotated Version

Revised Local Area Management Program (LAMP) – April 27, 2018The revised LAMP that is being considered.

Revised LAMP (PDF: 801 kB)


According to Permit Sonoma’s Nathan Quarles, the OWTS Manual is primarily a reformatted version of existing County regulations and standards to comply with the State Water Resources Control Board OWTS PolicyTier 2 Local Area Management Program (LAMP) requirements. 

That’s certainly a bureaucratic mouthful. But the changes are not as innocuous as a simple “reformatting,” and the proposed edits will have serious consequences for rural residents who rely on septics. As many homeowners in West County know, the revision of the OWTS Manual has an extensive history. It was first reviewed by the Land Use Advisory Panel in January 2016 and the general public in March 2016. In May 2016, the Board of Supervisors approved submittal of the OWTS Manual and the County’s LAMP to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board for review and approval. The Regional Water Board then provided comments that required edits to the OWTS Manual. It was anticipated that the OWTS Manual would be reviewed and updated periodically to keep pace with new issues, policies, procedures and technologies affecting the use and management of OWTS.

Permit Sonoma sought feedback and held public forums to hear from the community. Much of what we heard during those meetings were concerns about stringent standards that could restrict and dampen our county’s, especially west county’s, ability to maintain existing affordable housing or add affordable housing in the form of granny units or new homes. Many residents fear that the proposed policy will ultimately lead to the red-tagging of homes and loss of affordable housing in rural Sonoma County. They fear that fixed-income seniors will be priced out of their own home when they come in for a simple repair and find that they need to invest tens of thousands of dollars on system upgrades, site analysis, and County permits.

What the OTWS policy represents is a gnarly intersection between the crossroads of environmental concerns and housing needs. We are in a housing crisis that was only exacerbated by last October’s fires. Estimates assume the county needs 30,000 new units to keep our economy rolling (after all, without housing for a workforce, we have no workforce. Just ask our team at the Department of Transportation and Public Works, which has been finding it difficult to recruit new engineers since there are few places for such employees to live).

But, opponents of the proposed OWTS say the requirements are too stringent and costly and will create unintended consequences, including people skirting the regulations and necessary permitting altogether… which will be worse for the environment in the long run. That’s not what we want.

OWTS on the Board of Supervisors Agenda for May 22: The Board of Supervisors will be charged with finding a happy medium. While we’re working on addressing the need for affordable housing, we also need to heed caution to everything that came before us: the land, the water and every creature, big and small, that depends on the health of both, especially the Russian River. 

No decision has been made yet, and we’re asking Permit Sonoma to continue to work on the revised OWTS by incorporating in resident concerns, both about housing needs, the cost of requirements, and environmental impacts. The final version will come to us and then be sent to the Regional Water Board before final approval by the State Water Board. I urge you to look at the proposed revision, and email Permit Sonoma and the Board of Supervisor to share your concerns.

Our County by Lynda Hopkins

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