RINCON POINT AND THE THREE MILLION DOLLAR DISPOSABLE DIAPER Article in Santa Barbara Newpress Section G Sunday July 30/2000

Wesley Roe and Marjorie Lakin Erickson lakinroe at silcom.com
Mon Jul 31 22:23:08 PDT 2000

Article in Santa Barbara Newpress Section G Sunday July 30/2000

As an ecological systems designer specializing in water and wastewater
systems, I’m pleased to see a broad coalition rally to the clean water
cause. Most of the content of the debate I agree with. However, at times it
seems there isn’t enough technical understanding to keep the discussion
firmly anchored in reality. Lest we find ourselves taking multiple steps
back for each step forward, I’d like to share some general ecological
design principles, and use the question of how to improve water quality at
Rincon to illustrate their application.

A fundamental principle of ecological design is to CONSIDER THE WHOLE PICTURE.

The temptation to avoid the big picture is strong, because it is difficult.
Of a hundred ways to make the ocean cleaner, only a handful will make
things cleaner overall. It is easiest to clean up an area by sweeping the
impact somewhere else. But often the total impact is then greater, because
of the added impact of sweeping.
Heal the Ocean has done a service to the community by raising awareness of
water quality problems so that everyone agrees that SOMETHING should be
done. The water is dirty because of too much human disturbance. Building
systems to relocate the disturbance (e.g. a sewer line) creates an
ecological disturbance of its own: the production of miles of pipe, pumps,
filters, electronics etc., digging up streets, sidewalks, gardens, and
native burial grounds, and the ongoing consumption of electricity,
chemicals, and burned out pumps, forever. 

By removing the constraint of on site wastewater disposal from this area,
the scale of and density of development is free to attain a much higher
level—with a sewer line, the sky is the limit. Reduction of an ecological
impact on water quality is being used to justify a system which has an
extremely strong tendency to /increase/ ecological impacts of all kinds by
spurring development. If property owners want more development, they can
and should do it without exporting their waste problem.

What is appropriate in one place is inappropriate in another—everything
depends on context. Are sewers bad? Is pooping directly in the ocean bad?
it depends. Even on the high seas, flushing directly to the ocean sounds
bad, but if you analyze it you’ll find that it is improbable the ocean
could be affected. Does this mean it is OK to dump DDT in the ocean? It
would have the same dilution initially, but re-concentrate in the food
chain—so no. Is it OK to poop directly in the ocean when you’re in the
harbor? No, the water is too confined. Pumping the sewage from the harbor
to the treatment plant is better. Does that mean that if you live by the
beach, you should pump your sewage to a treatment plant? It depends. If you
live in Florida or Hawaii, the answer is yes. Florida has fissured
limestone aquifers. The bedrock is a network of open, water filled caves
which channel water rapidly without treatment directly to the ocean. In
Hawaii, it is the same except the pipes are lava tubes. If you live on the
coast in Santa Barbara, the ecological solution is probably to use a septic
tank, because our climate and soil are optimal for septic systems. If the
context is such that the septic tank is failing or likely to fail, it may
need some help in the form of reducing the flow or enhancements to its
treatment capacity.

Santa Barbara just approved a new septic tank ordinance, citing studies
from Florida and Hawaii and saying “we cannot assume Santa Barbara is any
different from the rest of the world.” But septic effluent which travels
ten miles in a day in Florida might move a foot in Santa Barbara.
Inspecting septic tanks to make sure they are working optimally is a good
idea. Hooking Santa Barbara houses to sewers because septics don’t work in
Florida is not. Santa Barbara would be bucking a promising national trend
towards effective on-site treatment by supporting sewer conversion.

In Marin’s Stinson Beach, there is a half-mile long sand spit a hundred
yards wide, with the Pacific on one side and an ecologically sensitive
lagoon on the other. It is all sand, and no point is even ten feet above
the water. The spit is covered with large houses, all on septic tank/ sand
mound systems, all inspected annually, all working. This is a more
appropriate inspiration for coastal problem areas in Santa Barbara.

The purification capacity of soil for fecal bacteria is astounding.
According to tests by the World Health organization, you could fill a dry
pit with feces and it would not affect a creek or ocean twenty feet
away—they found almost no lateral migration. The same studies showed
maximum extent of bacterial plumes from feces in flowing groundwater of
forty feet. Tests of land treatment have found it to be effective against
viruses, something treatment plants are not very good at 
(see http://www.oasisdesign.net/rincon.htm for the these references and the
calculations behind the paragraphs below).
Over six hundred pounds of feces are treated by Rincon Point septic tanks
every day. Using data from the Lower Rincon Creek Watershed Study by Santa
Barbara County Public Health and Heal the Ocean, I did a “back of the
envelope calculation” to convert their findings on lagoon contamination
from the obscure units given (79 fecal coliform mpn/100ml) to the more
easily grasped half-teaspoon of human feces in the 30,000 or so gallons of
the lagoon. This study produced no firm evidence that the septic tanks are
contaminating the lagoon. It does show that IF they are, the maximum amount
of contamination is still well under the standard for swimming. Fecal
matter would come out of failing septics in a fairly steady stream. The
study noted that forty percent of the human feces were from one sampling
event—so it is possible that one casually tossed diaper is costing Rincon
homeowners three million dollars.. 

Of the 74 septic systems at Rincon, If any are polluting the lagoon, it can
only be a few partly failing systems.
According to the sewer proponents’ own study the amount of nasties entering
the lagoon is at most /four thousandths of one percent/ of what goes into
the septic tanks. If hooked to the sewer, 100% of the sewage would go into
the ocean with enough chlorine to kill the fecal coliform indicator
bacteria, but not enough to kill all the viruses. If there is a very hard
rain, power failure or pipe break once every eighty years, the sewage
treatment plant will dump more raw feces from Rincon point into the ocean
than eighty years worth of the maximum contamination the septics could be
causing. A sewer will also increase the amount of effluent, by removing
incentive for indoor water conservation and enabling more building. Not a
great water quality improvement, and certainly not cost-effective at three
million dollars—to clean up at most a diaper a month worth of feces.

In literature supporting sewer conversion, Heal the Ocean states that “it’s
like sweeping ones house—getting all the dirt and dust into one pile
(getting the septics into one disposal area) then picking it up into a
dustpan (sewage plant).” They further state that the key to their program
is their long term vision that 100% of sewer effluent will be reclaimed. 

The spirit is commendable but there are technical glitches. First, septic
tank effluent is a special kind of “dust” which is harmlessly returned by
soil to nutrient and water cycles precisely if the concentration is not too
great, as their study shows is happening now. Getting it all “into one
pile, ” i.e., too concentrated for soil to deal with, is exactly the wrong
thing to do with a material of this type. Second, the vision of 100%
wastewater reclamation (which is still under investigation) could only be
attained with aggressive sewer flow reduction. What are you going to do
with several thousand acre-feet of reclaimed water during the rainy season?
Heal the Ocean’s goals would be better served by aggressively fostering
effective on-site treatment wherever feasible—any other approach is plain
bad design.

I was informed by Heal the Ocean that on-site treatment was probably ideal,
but it would take too long to implement. The most simple, cost effective,
and immediate measure possible would be for Rincon homeowners to conserve
water indoors, and divert greywater from their septic tanks. The load on
Rincon septic tanks could easily be reduced 80%.The impact on the ocean
would be reduced more, say 90% (not only is the flow smaller, but the
remaining flow receives much higher treatment as it takes longer to pass
through septic tank and soil). This would eliminate most capacity problems
and could be done for a few thousand dollars per house. Any water quality
improvement would occur immediately. The techniques tend to be far simpler
and cheaper, and nothing begins to compare with flow reduction for
improving overall impact.

This would increase the effectiveness of the systems from the 99.997%
(minimum) measured by the study to perhaps 99.9997%. If the remaining
problem septic tanks (if any) were then identified, they could be improved
with sand mound or other proven on-site treatment systems at a cost per
house which was substantially lower than the $40-$60,000 for hooking to
sewer. The overall cost for the community would be dramatically lower—maybe
$500,000 instead of $3,000,000 plus. The contamination of the Rincon would
be reduced without making someplace else dirtier, improvement could start
immediately, very little electricity and no chemicals would be required,
roads would stay intact...

A colleague with extensive experience constructing wastewater treatment
facilities says they are 10% technology and 90% politics. The intense
desire to DO SOMETHING about water quality may push Rincon Point
sewerification onward. When Heal the Ocean finishes studying sewage
reclamation and finds out the amount of flow reduction required to make it
feasible, that SOMETHING may turn out to be an expensive education in the
way NOT to take care of areas where septic tanks work fine with a little care.

Art Ludwig has authored books on on-site wastewater systems and is writing
a book called “Design for Living with Nature” 

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