High-tech septics go mainstream

Some homeowners who need to replace failing septic systems are finding they may have to upgrade to newer, more costly technology.

While the city’s current standards are more stringent than what was allowed under Los Angeles County regulations, most systems that meet county standards are still permitted by the city.

“Malibu will not turn down any designs consistent with the county, but they will also approve wastewater treatment systems that produce effluent that has much less pollutants than the standard septic system,” said Norm Haynie, who chairs the city’s Wastewater Advisory Committee.

Many permit requests for septic repairs have been put on hold, however, and the city is already requiring secondary systems where conventional septics don’t work — such as where there is high groundwater or poor percolation due to tight soil on hillsides and in some cases where the existing system has failed in a short time, and there is no evidence of misuse. Some failures are caused by excessive grease deposits and the use of chlorine and liquid drain openers that kill the beneficial bacteria needed to make the systems work properly.

Beachfront property owners face an additional challenge because the California Coastal Commission is changing its regulation for placement of new or reconstructed seawalls (bulkheads).

“The theory behind that policy is that seawalls, whether wood or concrete, have a negative impact on natural beach processes [the continual erosion and rebuilding of sand], and the more landward they are located the less impact they will have on those processes,” Haynie said. “This policy, however, means there is less area landward of the seawall to locate the septic tank and leach field.”

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Some of the newer alternative systems can be put in a smaller footprint, and they provide the same quality of treatment that is produced by a centralized treatment plant, Haynie said. “The newer technology involves aeration or intermittent sand filters or other types of treatment that will reduce substantially the amount of pollutants in the effluent and therefore require less area.”

“Typical of what we’re doing on beachfront homes is to get disinfection through introduction of the secondary treated wastewater through a bottomless sand filter,” said Steve Braband of Biosolutions, Inc., which has installed some of Malibu’s new multifamily and commercial systems.

While prices for state-of-the-art, single-family systems may be double that of conventional types, the individual price is site specific. When weighed against the costs of frequent pumping, relocating leach fields or installing new seepage pits, the new systems may prove to be cost effective.

“It should be noted that although these systems are more expensive, there are many people in Malibu who are having them installed because of their desire to reduce pollutants filtered into the land, not because they’re required to, but because they are sensitive to the environment,” Haynie said.

“All systems must be designed in strict conformance to city design standards for both review and installation,” said Craig George, Environmental and Building Safety supervisor. “This department will be submitting for council review different programs for a long-term wastewater management plan for the city of Malibu, but it will be a step-by-step process initially.”

The City Council is scheduled to hear some wastewater management proposals at its first meeting in February.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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