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May 24, 2022

Septic tanks in the city?

In wake of moratorium, private business leaders explore
development options
– with little encouragement
Since a squirrel allegedly caused a sewage levee to burst open
last May, some business owners have been thinking about the ins and
outs of wastewater
– that is, how to build or expand without connecting to the
city’s overburdened sewer system.
In wake of moratorium, private business leaders explore development options – with little encouragement

Since a squirrel allegedly caused a sewage levee to burst open last May, some business owners have been thinking about the ins and outs of wastewater – that is, how to build or expand without connecting to the city’s overburdened sewer system.

The moratorium on even new business connections has had local entrepreneurs pondering ways to grow their businesses without using the city’s sewer system. They’ve come up with some fairly creative ideas: connecting temporarily to septic tanks, buying a portable pre-fabricated treatment plant and using the treated water for irrigation.

But these ideas don’t flow so smoothly with the Regional Water Quality Control Board – the state agency that effectively constipated growth last month because the city repeatedly has failed to meet deadlines to improve the system.

“I think it would be discouraged by us to put in a temporary septic system as a way of getting around this moratorium,” said Matt Fabry, a Water Resource Control Engineer with the state water board. “I don’t think we want to see these satellite treatment plants pop up until the main plant comes online.”

A new sewer plant is, at the very least, three years away, longer than many business people want to wait for their projects.

A San Benito businessman visited the state water board’s office in San Luis Obispo last week and offered to buy a temporary treatment unit so he could build a 66-room hotel. The businessman proposed using the treated water to irrigate crops.

The man, whose name Fabry couldn’t recall, said he was readying the hotel plans last May when the 15 million gallon spill occurred. He asked what Fabry thought of buying a portable mini-treatment plant.

Fabry said the machine is fairly complex and requires skill to operate. The contraption can smell bad too, Fabry said.

“It was a brief conversation,” he said.

The other idea that’s come to Fabry’s attention wouldn’t stink if it was used, and it’s simpler to operate and in design. But an underground septic tank, which homeowners and businesses in the unincorporated county use when they can’t connect to a sewer line, has its own snags.

The idea in its rough form was to place a septic tank outside city limits, according to Fabry. Ted Intravia, one of the owners of the Premiere Cinemas on McCray Street, would not confirm exactly what idea he floated to the county’s Department of Environment Health, but the DEH reported to Fabry in an e-mail that Intravia wants to build a temporary septic system.

“Like everybody, we’d like to expand, but we’re bound,” Intravia said. “I don’t get emotional about it, because it’s a business thing. We’re exploring it and hopefully it will work. We want to make sure we don’t step on anybody’s toes.”

Normally the county environmental health department acts on the state water board’s behalf when it reviews septic tanks for single-family homes, but this idea went to the control board directly. Intravia had hoped that if he were successful, his plan would be a template for industrial development during the moratorium. When the new sewage plant is on line, the septic tanks would be removed.

Whether the state water board accepts the idea and the city allows it remains to be seen.

“We would obviously be working with the county on it,” Fabry said, “and we have the ultimate authority to deny it.”

Assuming an application isn’t denied, applicants must still convince the city, which doesn’t allow septic tanks, unless it can’t be connected to a sewer line for physical reasons. City Manager George Lewis said he has already explained the situation to three business people, though he declined to reveal them by name.

“There have been some people talking about this and the city has not taken a position,” he said. “At this point, we have not encouraged it.”

Allowing business owners to put in septic tanks for expansion purposes would mean a change in city policy, which means the City Council would have to change it with a vote, according to Lewis.

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