Photo by LA County DPW Sewer Maintenance Division

WDR Success Story: LA County Sewer Maintenance Division Prepares for New Regulations

“The flexibility and adaptability of the State Board staff created a partnership”
By Roni Gehlke, Clean Water Editor, Collection Systems, Regulations

View CWEA’s WDR resource page >

After four years of hosting meetings and conducting surveys with the public, wastewater stakeholders, and wastewater agencies, the California State Water Resources Control Board has adopted new regulations affecting more than 1,200 publicly operated collection systems with greater than one mile of sewers discharging to a publicly owned wastewater treatment plant.

The regulations — collectively known as “Sanitary Sewer Systems, Wastewater Discharge Requirements” or WDRs — were adopted Dec. 6, 2022, and supersede the state water board’s previous Order 2006-0003-DWQ and its related amendments. All sections and attachments of the new regulations are enforceable by the state water board and Regional Water Quality Control Boards.

While the process of revising the 2006 WDRs took a great deal of time, state water board Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel said in December that 85% of those affected by the new General Order agreed with the changes adopted.

“The flexibility and adaptability of the State Board — especially Diana Messina and her staff — created, really, a partnership,” said Martin Moreno, principal engineer of the Sewer Maintenance Division at Los Angeles County Public Works. “All the stakeholders I’ve talked to are appreciative of the manner and approach and the methodology the State took and how the order evolved.”

Coby Skye, an LA County Public Works deputy director, has heard similar feedback from the cities his division represents throughout the county.

“Cities recognized what the State was trying to accomplish in having more reporting and transparency at the local level,” Skye said. “It was a good process.”

LA County DPW Consolidated Sewer Maintenance District

LA County Public Works partners with cities throughout the county under an agreement called the Consolidated Sewer Maintenance District of Los Angeles County. Skye explained that the consolidated district’s sewer maintenance system serves more than half a million parcels and a population of over 2 million people within the county’s unincorporated areas (excluding Marina del Rey), 37 cities, and two contract cities.

The consolidated district’s system comprises over 4,600 miles of sanitary sewers, 87 pump stations, and four wastewater treatment plants. The estimated value of the system is more than $1.5 billion, with the consolidated district’s annual operating budget of about $83 million.

This gives the cities involved in the partnership a unique and collective vision and responsibility for the new WDRs. The LA County Public Works team has been working individually with each city to ensure that all requirements are in compliance and up-to-date by the time the General Order takes effect on June 6, 2023.

Sewer System Management Plan

Moreno said the state made a huge compromise in finding common ground while developing new rules for the Sewer System Management Plan (SSMP). Many stakeholders thought that under the 2006 WDRs, the cycle between reviewing the requirements of the master plan and auditing the plan was out of sync.

Initially, the rule was to review the SSMPs every five years. The state moved this to every six years. Now audits are every three years when they were every two years.

“This equals the process out,” he said. “That is very helpful to the cities and agencies.”

Under Section 5.4 of the new General Order, the SSMP requirement also expands regulation to protect the waters of the state by adding to the prohibition on discharge from a sanitary system to include waters of the state and requiring SSMPs to identify deficiencies in addressing spills to the waters of the state.

Climate change impacts

In March 2017, the state water board adopted a “Comprehensive Response to Climate Change” resolution, requiring a proactive response to climate change in all its actions. The new WDRs address climate change throughout the General Orders, including D-8.5, which requires wastewater agencies to identify system assets vulnerable to direct and indirect impacts of climate change.

Moreno said that Los Angeles County has a diverse topography and, as such, deals with many of the climate change issues, including flooding and increased storm volumes. However, one of the areas hardest hit by climate change issues over the past decade in the county has been wildfires.

“With wildfires comes a series of interruptions of power supply, impacts to canyon roads and the like. Consequently, electric utility companies have implemented public safety power shutoff programs in the event of high winds or red flag warnings,” he said. “They can last sometimes hours or a day or so.”

To counter these issues, LA County Public Works has addressed design standards for providing power to pump stations and ensuring access to areas of concern.

“We’ve made fuel modification of landscaping and either added permanent generators or enhanced our speed in deploying and connecting mobile generators,” Moreno said.

“This really highlights the importance of resiliency in everything we do across public works,” Skye said. “We’ve had that focus now for a few years, but we’ve really put it to use in recent years as impacts of climate change have become more dramatic and really affect so much that we do.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusivity

Since 2016 the state water board has worked to build more equitable access to clean water. The newly approved WDRs take this further by specifying that everyone is also entitled to wastewater services. In November of 2021, resolution 2021-0050 was adopted, condemning racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and racial injustice. The new General Order reaffirms this commitment to its Human Right to Water resolution from 2016, stating that “every human being in California deserves safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water for human consumption, cooking, and sanitation purposes.”

The resolution also addresses climate change and the “disproportionate effects of extreme hydrologic conditions and sea-level rise on Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.”

In June 2022, a resolution was adopted allowing executive directors or designees to enter into one or more multi-year contracts to a combined sum of $4 million for a Statewide Wastewater Needs Assessment, supporting equitable access to sanitation for all Californians.

With a community as racially diverse and with varying income levels as Los Angeles County, both Skye and Moreno are well aware of the challenges the county faces in keeping wastewater collection rights equitable — a challenge they are working on addressing through robust public outreach.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusivity are critical in everything we do,” Skye said. “We want to make sure we are representing the communities we serve.”

The county is currently working on a program that includes public outreach, using an equity lens to inform constituents of available services and who to contact so that everyone feels comfortable calling.

“Affluent communities may know who to call or have more time to make the calls during traditional work hours,” Moreno said, “while those managing multiple jobs to make ends meet are more hustle and bustle and let it go in exchange for other priorities.”

The hope is to eliminate the “you can’t fight City Hall” mentality and ensure everyone knows what to do when they need help.

“Our unincorporated communities have incredible diversity in geography and in the backgrounds of their people,” Skye said. “Cultural awareness is really important in how we meet the needs of our communities and provide residents with a positive customer experience”

Receiving water sampling requirements

When wastewater agencies are dealing with Sewer System Overflows (SSOs) larger than 50,000 gallons discharged into surface water, one of the most significant parts of the job is making sure all of the water is sampled and sent to labs in the quickest amount of time, so that tests can be completed and logged for reporting purposes. In the past, this needed to be completed in 48 hours. Under the new requirements, that time has been reduced to 18 hours.  However, the state had initially wanted to shorten this time even further – to 12 hours.

Some metropolitan areas throughout the state have access to labs nearby where sampling can be done quickly. Moreno said that other agencies may require an hour or more to get their samples to a testing lab.

“Spills don’t always occur within the Monday through Friday working hours when most agencies can get the necessary resources to make sure they are in compliance,” Moreno said, reminding that samples also have a short life.

Through much negotiation, the agencies were able to convince the state water board that those extra six hours would make a difference. Both Skye and Moreno believe the new WDRs result in both wastewater agencies and the state water board ending on common ground with more transparency and increased accountability. This will mean fewer SSOs.

Skye went on to say that there is no question “that collaboration is so important when you are working with these huge issues. That’s a big benefit of the (Los Angeles County) consolidated districts working together, not just the economies of scale, but the knowledge and resources to address these issues.”

For more information on the adopted new Sanitary Sewer Systems — click here for Waste Discharge Requirements.