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Legislation and Policy

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Under the CWA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented pollution control programs, such as setting wastewater standards for industry, and has developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface waters.

States are required under the CWA to submit to the EPA a list of surface waters that do not meet applicable water quality standards due to various pollutants (a.k.a. impaired waters). States must then establish pollutant reduction levels for impaired waters and update and resubmit their impaired waters list every two years. This process ensures that polluted waters continue to be monitored and assessed until applicable water quality standards are met.

Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Policy

California has more than 1.2 million Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS). Most do not pose a significant threat to human health and water quality. However, poorly sited, designed, and/or maintained OWTS can impact surface and groundwater, primarily with nitrates and pathogens. In 2000, Governor Gray Davis codified California Water Code §13290 et. seq., a modified form of Assembly Bill 885, which directed the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to adopt standards or regulations for OWTS by January 1, 2004.  In 2012, the SWRCB adopted the Water Quality Control Policy for Siting, Design, Operation and Maintenance of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS Policy). 

North Coast Region Basin Plan

The Water Quality Control Plan for the North Coast Region (Basin Plan) contains the regulations adopted by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) to control the discharge of waste and other controllable factors affecting the quality of waters of the state within the boundaries of the North Coast Region. The Basin Plan is used as a regulatory tool by the RWQCB and sets forth the region's water quality standards, prohibitions, and other programs of implementation applicable to a particular pollution discharge or category of discharge. 

Russian River Total Maximum Daily Load

A Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) establishes the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed in a waterbody in order to meet approved water quality standards. It serves as the starting point or planning tool for restoring water quality and protecting public health. The TMDL process leads to a "pollution budget" designed to restore the health of a polluted or impaired body of water. The TMDL process provides a quantitative assessment of water quality problems, contributing sources of pollution, and the pollutant load reductions or control actions needed to restore and protect the beneficial uses of an individual waterbody impaired from loading of a particular pollutant. In other words, a TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still meet water quality standards. This calculation also includes a margin of safety and consideration of seasonal variations. In addition, the TMDL contains the reductions needed to meet water quality standards and allocates those reductions among the pollutant sources in the watershed.

Water quality studies conducted in the Russian River and its tributary creeks, indicate a widespread problem with bacteria and other evidence of fecal waste discharge, which represent a potential threat to the health of the river ecosystem and the people who visit it. As a result, the Russian River is listed as an impaired waterbody for pathogens under the Clean Water Act.

The North Coast RWQCB developed the  Russian River Pathogen TMDL Action Plan to address the pathogen impairment and sources of fecal waste pollution in the Russian River Watershed. The Action Plan was adopted by the RWQCB in August of 2019 with the overall goal of minimizing human exposure to waterborne disease-causing pathogens and to protect uses of water for recreational activities such as wading, swimming, fishing, and boating. To accomplish this goal, the Action Plan prohibits the discharge of fecal waste to all surface waters of the Russian River Watershed. The Plan is currently expected to go before the State Water Board for consideration of final approval in spring-summer 2022. Meanwhile, early implementation efforts are underway to help advance community infrastructure planning and construction in TMDL communities.

Local Area Management Plan

The Sonoma County (LAMP) was developed in response to the State Water Resources Control Board's OWTS Policy. The primary goals of the OWTS policy are to improve protection of groundwater, surface water and public health by assigning minimum standards for OWTS. The restrictive standards in Tier 1 of the OWTS Policy apply throughout California unless the local jurisdictions prepare a LAMP, essentially customizing the requirements to take local geology and OWTS practices into consideration, and also authorizing the use of alternative (supplemental) treatment systems when a conventional septic tank and leachfield system are not suitable for use based on site or soil conditions.

The Sonoma County LAMP was developed in accordance with Tier 2 of the OWTS Policy to provide local designers, installers and regulators more flexibility when designing, installing and permitting OWTS while still ensuring that the goals of the OWTS Policy can be met. The LAMP does not require changes to existing, properly functioning OWTS. New OWTS and repairs, expansions or replacement of existing OWTS will be required to meet the requirements of the LAMP. Existing OWTS that are found to clearly degrade groundwater or surface water quality, or that could otherwise contribute to public health impacts, may also require upgrade or replacement.  

A central component of Sonoma County’s LAMP is the County’s updated Onsite Waste Treatment Systems (OWTS) Manual. This manual provides the regulations, procedural and technical details governing individual onsite wastewater treatment systems (also referred to as septic systems). The three main changes to local septic requirements relate to:

  • Repairs, replacement systems and new systems;
  • Qualified consultants and OWTS designers; and
  • Building permit thresholds for septic system review.

LAMP Approval Process

The Sonoma County LAMP was approval by the Board of Supervisors on June 11, 2019. In response to directives from the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), design consultant and stakeholder comments, revisions to the LAMP and OWTS Manual are currently underway.  The revised LAMP and OWTS Manual are scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors for consideration of approval on September 21, 2021. Once adopted by the BOS, they will be scheduled for consideration of adoption by the Regional Water Board.

Sonoma County OWTS Manual

The Sonoma County Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS) Manual provides the regulations, procedural and technical details governing individual onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), also referred to as septic systems. It is a compilation of historical regulations updated to comply with current State standards. State law mandates that the State Water Resources Control Board adopt standards for regulation of OWTS (State OWTS Policy). The Sonoma County OWTS Manual complies with the State OWTS Policy's Tier 2 Local Area Management Program (LAMP) requirements.

On June 11, 2019, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) authorized submittal of a revised Sonoma County LAMP and OWTS Manual to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB). In response to directives from the RWQCB, design consultant and stakeholder comments, revisions to the LAMP and OWTS Manual are currently underway.  The revised LAMP and OWTS Manual are scheduled to go before the BOS for consideration of approval on September 21, 2021. Once adopted by the BOS, they will be scheduled for consideration of adoption by the RWCQB.

The main changes to the updated manual include:

  • Permit Types. There are three types of permits: new, replacement and repair. New OWTS serve undeveloped properties. Replacement OWTS are for tank replacements and/or dispersal system replacements for developed sites (previously known as a voluntary repair). Repair OWTS allow for the relatively minor work: distribution box, valves, etc.
  • Classifications. Class I, II and III classifications would be replaced with references to either Code Compliant or Legal Non-Conforming systems
  • Code Compliant OWTS means a system that is in conformance with this OWTS Manual, or meets the intent of the standards by proposing mitigation measures that are equal to the standards.  A Code Complaint OWTS can be new or existing. 
  • Variances. Code compliant does not mean that you need a new system or that you meet each and every standard. The County allows variances from the standards provided sufficient mitigation is provided. The proposed regulations allow more variance issues and more mitigation measures.
  • Voluntary Repairs. Previous voluntary repairs regulations would be eliminated. Typical voluntary repairs include replacing dispersal systems. A new or replacement dispersal system must meet a two (2) foot separation to groundwater, have adequate soil type and depth, and be designed by an appropriately licensed professional defined as qualified consultants in the State Business and Professions Code.
  • Building Permits. Prior regulations required a septic evaluation for most building permits. The proposed regulations require a septic system evaluation or possibly a new code compliant system only when the project increases wastewater flow and/or strength to the existing system. The proposed regulations also evaluate the location of the proposed building/construction relative to the septic system and reserve area. The intent is to avoid physical impacts to the septic system. In certain cases, reserve replacement areas will be evaluated or required.
  • Alternative & Experimental Systems. The proposed regulations expand the list of currently approved and conditionally acceptable experimental and/or alternative systems and elaborates on the criteria and process to enroll various innovative technology/systems into either the experimental system program and/or the alternative system program.
  • Financial Hardship. The proposed regulations create financial hardship provisions, that if met, would exempt a client from the standards.  The septic system would need to comply with the standards to the maximum extent feasible.
  • Waiver. The Regional Water Board adopted a revised Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements that now includes OWTS that cannot meet the two (2) foot separation to groundwater requirement. If the system cannot meet the two (2) foot separation standard, the client would have to apply to the Regional Water Board for a wavier.  Local agencies cannot waive this standard according to the State’s OWTS Policy, but will act as the technical lead for review.

Public Outreach and Engagement

Community education and engagement was a central component of the regulation update process. County staff hosted community meetings, met with numerous community associations, welcomed comments in person and online, and provided materials to educate the public on the process and technical details. The County remains committed to continuing to educate and work with the community to meet these State mandated septic regulations.

Russian River Clean

Contact Information

Russian River Clean

Alisha O'Loughlin

Lower Russian River Ombudsperson

County Administrator's Office
County of Sonoma

Contact us by Email

Contact us by Phone


County Administration Building
575 Administration Drive
Suite 104A
Santa Rosa, 95403