Sonoma County Gazette, May 2013

AB 2398 now back as AB 803: Irrigated Wastewater Legislation

Last year’s controversial legislation, AB 2398, proposed loosening State  requirements for wastewater irrigation in order to greatly expand reuse. Now it’s returned as AB 803, and still maximizes opportunities for over-irrigating wastewater that can pollute our waterways with concentrated nutrients, toxic pesticides, and other endocrine disrupting chemicals during low stream flows when pollutants are least likely to be assimilated. This is also the time when recreational use is highest and the potential for human contact is great.

The person who helped write both pieces of legislation, Dr. Dave Smith, is head of California WateReuse, and also the prime wastewater consultant for the City of Santa Rosa for the last 27 years.  During that time, and with Santa Rosa’s support, Dr. Smith advocated greater discharges into the Russian River, argued vociferously for mixing zones (areas allowing pollutant discharges), assisted in lawsuits against the State Water Board to avoid regulation of nutrient discharges into the severely impaired Laguna, and much more.  For years he advocated significant capacity increases in the City’s discharge permit over what was needed for projected growth, and is currently lobbying to minimize regulatory oversight in the City’s revised discharge permit.

Polluted irrigation runoff prime concern…..
No one is proposing the elimination of all irrigation with recycled wastewater, but there has been enough abuse (hundreds of pictures on file at Regional Board showing over-irrigation in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park), that we are alerting the public to potential problems and the need to proceed VERY cautiously with permitting and oversight of recycled water projects.

Local water bodies are already highly impaired by nutrients, temperature, sediments, bacteria, and more, and the Regional Board is in the process of developing Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL’s) to address these problems. Santa Rosa’s Draft NPDES Permit requires no net discharge of nutrients be allowed into receiving waters.  Yet local cities irrigating with wastewater frequently allow runoff into impaired streams.

There are approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market, most of which have not been tested for toxicity and are unregulated.  Very little is known about how they combine and interact with one another.  In the last few years, there has been an ever increasing number of scientific studies calling attention to harm caused by endocrine disruptors, including many pest control products, chemotherapy drugs and other pharmaceuticals, personal care products, cleaning products, fire retardants, and much more.  Studies have linked many of these products to cancer, serious birth defects, autism, obesity, heart problems, diabetes, etc.

In the environment, these chemicals have been implicated in species decline.  Male frogs have developed female ovaries, and females have become aggressive and non-maternal.   Similar problems have been seen in sea birds in California.   Alligators in Florida were found to have abnormalities in the male testis and female ovaries. And many other species have also suffered the effects of these toxins.

Burgeoning number of studies on toxins justify concern….
Concern has been so great, that further studies are currently being conducted by the United Nations, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Service (who have already found many of these chemicals in rivers and drinking water supplies across the United States), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and other agencies concerned about the impacts these chemicals are having on the environment and public health.

California is not doing enough on this issue.  The State Water Board set up a Scientific Panel who failed to incorporate into their findings the common perception that very low dose exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals can have serious impacts on health.  (The San Francisco Medical Society has been active in promoting concern for endocrine disruption.  View their June, 2012 issue on their website at )

AB 803 somewhat improved over 2398….
There are some improvements in AB 803 over last year’s proposed legislation, AB 2398 (dropped last June).  The positive changes include acknowledgment of the State and Regional Board’s role in over-seeing regulation of discharges to waters of the State.  The proposed legislation also retains classification of recycled water as a ‘waste’ and therefore subject to regulation by that Agency.

Public Health oversight inconsistent….
AB 803 appears, however, to pass most regulatory authority for governing irrigated wastewater to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).  This Agency is fastidious in their regulation of tertiary wastewater when in the pipes, but is rather lax when it comes to releasing wastewater into the environment.

CDPH demands strong requirements to prevent cross connection between potable drinking water and recycled water, where the latter is defined as, “…any source or system containing unapproved water or a substance that is not or cannot be approved as safe, wholesome, and potable.”  (emphasis added)

The draft legislation then goes on to state, “Recycled water” is a wastewater which as a result of treatment is suitable for beneficial uses.”   This implies that recycled water is suitable for drinking water, which appears to directly contradict the Health Department’s concern for any mixing of potable and non-potable waters.  While concerned about cross connections of pipes and appropriate back flow devices, they have little concern about irrigating playgrounds with wastewater where children play or directly applying to some crops we eat and drink, such as wine.

Furthermore, the draft legislation prohibits irrigation with tertiary recycled water within 50 feet of any domestic water supply well unless many conditions are met.  Yet this same protection is not provided for our vulnerable and already impaired streams. It has been scientifically demonstrated that aquatic life and wildlife are sensitive to toxins in treated wastewater at far lower doses than humans.

Requirements for reporting spills grossly inadequate…..
Another great concern about AB 803 is that the reporting of spills is only required after the discharge of 50,000 gallons or more. The intent of the State’s Recycled Water Policy is that only small accidental spills that are not intentional, not a result of carelessness, or resulting from improper maintenance, will be considered ‘incidental’.  Certainly allowing 50,000 gallons to be released before reporting occurs cannot fall within that definition.   Inconsistencies obviously exist between this proposed legislation and the Recycled Water Policy that  need to be addressed.

Finally, the Bill also requires reporting spills to CDPH.  This appears to eliminate reporting to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards.  We don’t know if that is the true intent, but the way it is written now, it would be easy to come to that conclusion.