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Heal the Ocean Celebrates Adoption of State Septic System Regulations

Standards had remained unwritten since Assembly Bill 885 was signed into law in 2000

After a year and a half of wrangling with language in workshops in Sacramento and numerous conference calls with staff from the State Water Resources Control Board staff, two ocean-environmental groups came home from the State Capitol on Tuesday with a successful end to their campaign to get septic system regulations adopted for the permitting or operation of septic systems in the state of California.

Authored in 1999 by former Assemblywoman and current state Senate candidate Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, Assembly Bill 885 was signed into law in September 2000 to regulate the 1.2 million septic systems operating in California.

The State Water Board was required to adopt regulations by January 2004, but after years of contentious hearings around the state, the process collapsed and regulations remained unwritten.

Heal the Ocean of Santa Barbara and Heal the Bay of Santa Monica filed a “friendly lawsuit” vs. the State Water Board in February 2011 to move the process forward on the development of standards.

On Tuesday, in the State Water Board hearing room in Sacramento, Heal the Ocean executive director Hillary Hauser and Heal the Bay science engineer Susie Santilena were elated to see the regulations finalized.

In announcing the successful conclusion of AB 885 regulation development, Hauser reported a happy, serendipitous side note to Tuesday’s hearing in Sacramento. As environmental health directors, regional board officers, lobbyists and State Board staff left the hearing room and were standing outside in the hall, Hauser dialed AB 885 author Jackson on her cell phone, and held it up for everyone to “shout out” to her.

“It was amazing!” Hauser said. “Hannah-Beth happened to be in Sacramento — two blocks away! We all went to a popular lunch place to celebrate, and in came Hannah-Beth to salute everyone. Many of these people who had been working on her legislation had never met her. Now, 12 years later, the author of the bill shows up to see the finalization of her work. It turned into a party!”

Hauser said the truly satisfactory part of this celebration was that opposite sides gathered together and saluted each other for getting to a conclusion everyone could live with.

“If only our federal government could be so nonpartisan, wouldn’t that be great?” Hauser said “The state of California is diverse. What applies to Malibu or Santa Barbara does not necessarily apply to Shasta County.”

Heal the Ocean has been working for years on AB 885, knowing the environmental impact septic systems can have when they are improperly placed or improperly functioning.

“We needed such regulations when we were hammering out the South Coast Beach Communities Septic to Sewer project (which includes Rincon),” Hauser said. “We needed such regulations as we watched the 303(d) list of impaired water bodies grow in the state.”

Because of its experience in working with Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services on septic-to-sewer conversions in Santa Barbara County, HTO hired former EHS director Rick Merrifield to help give the environmental groups a realistic grasp on “what should be regulated and what should not,” Hauser said. As a member of the original AB 885 steering committee at the start of the process in 2000, Merrifield also had historical knowledge to help facilitate agreement between the environmental groups and the environmental health officers in the state during the workshops.

During the 18-month process, Heal the Ocean spearheaded the addition of a financial aid section, which outlines a state board mini-loan program to assist property owners in complying with the AB 885 policy.

— Hillary Hauser is executive director of Heal the Ocean.

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