High-tech systems treat, recycle wastewater onsite

Environmentalists looking for ways to avoid the massive ocean pollution caused by periodic overflows of major sewage treatment plants were among those taking a crash course in Onsite Wastewater Technology and Equipment Monday at City Hall.

The seminar, which drew 60 regulators, system designers and sanitation officials of districts from Santa Barbara to San Diego, was sponsored by local Biosolutions, Inc. and Orenco Systems of Oregon and was hosted by the city.

It seems those who resisted Los Angeles County’s efforts to force Malibu into its sewer system — primarily because they feared massive development would follow — may have been on the cutting edge after all.

A variety of innovative technologies — intermittent and recirculating sand filters, textile filters, STEP systems — have been tested and used in North Carolina and other states with high groundwater tables and poor soil, problems similar to those that plague Malibu, causing old, traditional septic systems to fail.

Notable and new among the many systems discussed was a textile filter system that requires only 30 square feet, can be placed below or above ground with landscaping and seems ideal for Malibu’s small beachfront and hillside lots where situating leach fields is problematic at best. A pump aerates the system so it can be placed virtually anywhere, even under hardscape such as a parking lot.

Marine biologist Rosi Dagit, a member of Malibu’s Environmental Review Board, said she attended to learn about the environmental benefits of the alternative systems. “I wanted to better understand how we could use them to clean up our creeks.” She said the textile filter was the only one that would fit on the small lots characteristic of Topanga. Despite its modest size, the textile system contains 100 times more surface area than a sand filter. Orenco says it has been tested for five years. Cost of the unit pumps for a single family home is about $5,000, about $10,000 completely installed. “This is less than what it would cost to repair a conventional system,” Braband said. And environmentally, it is the most sound. “You get water that exceeds municipal water treatment quality that can be used for subsurface irrigation.”

One of the reasons county officials have traditionally favored sewage plants over septic systems is the difficulty of regulating thousands of individual systems and small package plants. The discussion among regulators and sanitary district officials at the seminar produced some solutions.

Larry Young, the city’s environmental health specialist, said the City Council will consider a proposal to require homeowners to record a covenant with the city for onsite wastewater systems. “It’s a contract between the city and the homeowner to maintain the system. The covenant runs with the land, so the next buyer is bound by the contract,” he said.

“North Carolina has an onsite wastewater disposal permit. If the system fails and the homeowner doesn’t fix it, the permit can be withdrawn,” Orenco’s Bill Cagle said. “It’s a criminal misdemeanor to operate without a permit, but most district attorneys aren’t interested.”

“Our city will prosecute,” Young said. “A maintenance contract is required. Eventually, it’s going to be for every system.”

“There are failing systems that are getting pumped every week, but the county doesn’t enforce,” one regulator said.

“Part of the permit process will require inspections by certified industry people,” Young said. This would be possible because the city has fewer than 10,000 systems. L.A. County has 100,000 and San Diego has about one million.

Neighborhoods can get together and form a special service district. Placer County’s permit process includes a restrictive covenant, a recorded operating permit that is co-op owned. If the system is not maintained, constructive notice comes up on the title, Cagle said. “It’s a way to help out health departments that are overburdened, that don’t have enough manpower to check these things.”

Susan Nissman, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s deputy, said, “Basically, I came to learn what is happening around the state. It was very informative.”

This was the first in a series of planned technical seminars. A training course designed specifically for contractors is scheduled for Saturday. The city is requiring contractors working in Malibu to get ongoing training, to be certified to install the new systems, Braband said.

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

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