Four Wastewater Leaders Discuss the New General Order

What do wastewater pros think of the revised order?
By Alec Mackie, CWEA staff, Collection Systems

View CWEA’s WDR resource page >

Passed in December 2022, the new Sanitary Sewer System General Order incorporates several changes wastewater professionals called for during this update of the 2006 Waste Discharge Requirements (WDR). The new regs include new reporting and planning requirements.

They were developed over five years during an exhaustive process involving dozens of stakeholder meetings between the State Water Board staff, wastewater professionals, and stakeholders.

How far has California come in managing sewer systems since 2006 and what does our future look like?

“I believe California has done a fantastic job reducing sewer spills, far more than anywhere else in the nation. We’re now under the watchful eye of everyone here in California,” was one viewpoint shared by Daryl Lauer during our CWEA roundtable interview.

Daryl is the Collections Superintendent for Carmel Area Wastewater District and past Chair of the Collection Systems Committee.

He was joined by three distinguished collection systems leaders: Steve Moore, the General Manager and District Engineer for Ross Valley Sanitary District and a former member of the State Water Board; Miguel Medina the Assistant Engineer for the City of Vacaville’s Utilities Department with 25 years of experience in the industry; and Rey Mendez the Assistant Superintendent for Collection Systems at the City of Pacifica and Chair of the Collection Systems Committee.

California collection system professionals are leading the nation, driving spills down from over 6,000 in 2009 to just over 3,000 last year, according to state data. With the new regulations comes intense pressure to keep improving.

What’s your view of the new general order?

Steve: About 10 years ago, Ross Valley Sanitary District was put under an enforcement order because of excessive overflows, so from our perspective, we’ve already been receiving enhanced oversight.

We learned about creating accountability and asset management, in both the capital improvement side and maintenance side, with point repairs and fine-tuning our line cleaning approaches.

The elevated oversight has resulted in measurable improvements, cleaner water, and less overflow incidents. We’ve reduced our rainfall infiltration inflow by 28%.

Ross Valley Sanitary District has a challenging system with high rainfall amounts and an older system with small diameter lines vulnerable to root intrusion. We have high peaking factors because of the age of the system, and so, slowly but surely, we’re working through it.

We are in a better position today 10 years after the cease and desist order to respond to the set of atmospheric rivers that came through in January, and as a result of our preparation and investments, we only had one storm-related spill.

The new general order is not a big change for us, some of the work we’ve done enables us to comply with the new requirements.

Miguel: Within our structure we have two different departments involved in sewer system management – the Utilities and the Public Works Departments. With the new general order, we’re expanding the responsibilities for team members, and with two departments involved in assessing the collection system it’s challenging.

The new order will improve overall water quality by preventing spills and with the additional staff resources and investments we are planning, we can do a great job.

I don’t think a revision was needed. We were doing very well reducing spills and doing our due diligence. Since the requirements have expanded, there are pros and cons.

We need to step back a little to plan, fund, and come up with the resources necessary to meet the new compliance requirements. Resources are needed for detailed reporting and staff training.

Daryl: Like everything, changes and updates are necessary. Our department had to reallocate some funding to get everything updated.

I like the requirement of putting mobile mapping and GIS into the public domain. That way we can share information and people can get our system information online. I wish the state would require that for other private utilities, they’re requiring it for us but not for the private utilities

It would be nice if we globally harmonize and know where other assets are.

(Steve and Daryl both lifted their phones and brought up their systems on a public GIS map to show the group)

Steve: There’s my system right there.

What’s a positive aspect you see within the new General Order?

Steve: (The industry) fought hard to get the Water Board to appreciate that there is a range of sewer spills and some harm water quality and some do not. Overflows are an indicator of our performance and we do track all of them.

The order now recognizes spills of less than 50 gallons that don’t reach surface water are short-lived nuisances that don’t need to count against agencies as a water quality violation. (See the quick reference chart for the new Category 4 in the regulations).

The CIWQS reporting system is now structured in a way that won’t count these little nuisance incidents that don’t affect water quality. That was an important win. There’s some administrative issues about reporting that are manageable.

It was a lesson learned from 16 years of operation with the order. Tiny spills were a high percentage but don’t affect water quality, so why track them for compliance and create vulnerability to third party legal actions? There’s plenty of other priorities the state is managing.

Miguel: The Category 4 designation was a big win for the industry and Steve provided a lot of input on that item. I think 60-70% of our spills are less than 50 gallons. That is a lot of time and resources spent that do not affect water quality and can be used to prevent Category 1 spills.

The other thing I’d like to say is the State Water Board staff took time to talk with us and accept a lot of input from agencies. I think they did better than last time by listening to agencies.

Rey: I like that the order addresses the private types of mini sewer systems, such as shopping centers, private apartment complexes, etc.. They can be difficult to contact and they only react when there’s an overflow emergency. The new rules are better for us and I like that they’re going to be held more accountable.

Some shopping centers generate tons of grease. We’re trying a new type of blueprint with them, asking the managing group to present a maintenance schedule for their main line and add the bill to the lease or rent of the tenants. I think both groups want to have a good rapport and maintain compliance.

What’s something others should be aware of inside the general order?

Rey: How do we specifically qualify someone to be a Legally Responsible Officer (LRO)? There is now language around who exactly qualifies.

Are the new requirements going to defer to someone other than the person who will ultimately feel responsible for the system, and has control of what needs to be done to make sure the system is in compliance? If they put somebody else in as LRO, are they going to have the same interest or buy-in as the person who’s responsible for running the system?

Miguel: The responsibilities of the LRO have expanded. It now says “I certify under penalty of perjury, based on my inquiry of the person’s directly responsible for gathering the information…” Whoever is signing off needs to have a debrief with the first responders.

That’s a big thing and we’re making changes. The first responders will have their work reviewed by the lead, then there’s a second level of review with a supervisor and the superintendent checking the volume. Then we’re planning on having a final QA/QC of the spill workbook and volume estimates.


What got missed in the new order, what should get changed next time around?

Daryl: I was a little let down that they didn’t require (CWEA collection systems maintenance) certification. It’s the benchmark that what you’re doing is correct and it’s proven that cities and wastewater districts that require certification are better performing.

I am still hopeful someday certification will be a requirement.

Rey: I’m looking forward to more discussions about mandating certification. I think that everybody being on board with the same language is the goal. Everybody will know the acronyms, they will know how to technically talk to each other. You can learn in other ways, but certification addresses uniform language amongst our trade.

Mandated certification would elevate the level of respect that’s given to our trade.

How can the State help cities and agencies with General Order compliance?

Steve: What I think is useful is compliance assistance. The state staff and leadership want local governments, utilities, and the infrastructure to be successful. But evaluation of a collection system has a subjective element because we don’t have effluent limits.

Since there’s some subjectivity on compliance, even though the order is more specific, compliance assistance creates a team setting with the state and local utility, the regulator-regulated relationship. That takes funding, that takes our time, and that takes their staff time.

Putting aside funding for compliance assistance training, I think, can go a long way to improve performance, so local agencies have a better sense of what “good” looks like.

For example, the collection system regulation program could look more like the Division of Drinking Water office and their drinking water compliance assistance model where enforcement is uncommon and a last resort.

We’re all trying to serve the public good.

Miguel: Many cities are encountering aging infrastructure and we only have so much funding for repair and rehab jobs. There may come a point in the future where we can’t ask rate payers to fund all of these things.

There’s going to be push and pull on the financial side, and the state may need to provide some funding.

With the new General Order, declining flows, Atmospheric River flooding, retirements, and aging infrastructure, what does the future hold for us?

Steve: Climate change is making our jobs harder and we’ve got to do a good job of communicating and have a relationship with our regulators, so they understand what’s happening.

We’re getting these higher peaks, wetter wets and drier dries, and as my colleagues pointed out, the droughts mean more root intrusion. To head off issues, we have to ramp up preventative work, for instance to do more line cleaning that’s targeted in root infested areas.

With our new plastic pipes we don’t need to worry so much about root intrusion. We’ve got to make sure we’re cleaning the right pipes, not just miles cleaned, it’s the right miles cleaned. Those types of adaptations we’ve got to be thinking about to be successful.

We need to use the data we’re collecting to communicate with the regulators, so they can use their enforcement discretion. They should focus on people really not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, not punishing the people who are trying to do the right thing, but may have been impacted by a climate change issue.

Miguel: We were doing very well in reducing spills and then we had the drought. We saw an increase in overflows due to roots and grease, then we had the 2017 rain event that provided us with some Category 1 spills.

During the drought, the trees grow deeper roots, which turns into the source of blockages. We’re coming back-up to where the normal rainfall should be and that’s stressing out systems. We are now considering how to make the system more resilient after extreme conditions based on the recent climate events.

We’re also looking into benchmarking typical sewer collections tasks to see what we can do to help our teams.

Daryl: The state of California has pretty much every flavor of environment you could possibly imagine, from coastal towns to snow peaked mountains to the desert. It’s great.

But every collection system is different, no matter where you’re at. Rey is right up the street from me, not too far, and his system is different.

I think it’s like little micro pods around California, and it’s really hard to put the same solutions onto every system.

We know they’re different, we manage that. From a regulators standpoint it’s hard, they need everybody to be the same. And that’s a challenge going forward. How many overflows per mile to me is different than in a large city.

Rey: CWEA and NASSCO certification skills and terminology are a huge part of our daily culture here at Pacifica Collections. Being certified aids us in promoting our trade.

As we’ve heard before, sewer systems are like fingerprints, they look the same but they’re not. With Collections certification, you can handle any and all of California’s different systems.

This trade is worth more than people give credit for, because sewers never sleep. Many don’t appreciate our work until they have a sewer problem and need us. Only after we solve the issues do we get the glory, and still nobody is looking.

Those out there maintaining a collection system do so with great respect for what they do as any other first responder. With uniform certification, our field can present a level of standards to be looked up to, and that would attract talent to help us sustain our high standards going forward.