Valley Septic Systems Linked to Elevated Nitrates in Drinking Water

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Valley Septic Systems Linked to Elevated Nitrates in Drinking Water
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Source: Heal The Ocean

Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (typically referred to as septic systems or OWTS) located in the Santa Ynez River Valley, Santa Barbara County, have been linked to elevated nitrate levels in drinking water wells. 

The highest risk to groundwater was found to be in Janin Acres, located adjacent to the Santa Ynez River with a relatively high density of OWTS and shallow groundwater. Two other areas at risk are the area northeast of Los Olivos and the Lompoc Plain, also characterized by shallow groundwater. 

These are among the findings in a three-year study of the Santa Ynez River Valley Groundwater Basin, a cooperative effort of Heal the Ocean and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Funding from Heal the Ocean paid for intern Riley Haas, an environmental studies major from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to work at the Regional Board offices in San Luis Obispo, compiling and digitizing water well data in five sub-basins from the Los Olivos area along the Santa Ynez River to Lompoc and Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

The study, “Santa Barbara County Groundwater Characterization Project: Santa Ynez River Valley Groundwater Basin” which went through extensive review and hydrology analysis by Regional Board staff, is the most complete picture to date of water quality in the Santa Ynez-Lompoc Valley area.

Utilizing a US EPA risk model, the report provides a sophisticated and detailed analysis of water quality data in the study area based on geographic information system (GIS) mapping of various hydrogeologic parameters and other characteristics.  It addresses chemical constituents, proximity to agricultural lands, density of OWTS, groundwater recharge rates, depth to groundwater, geologic features, and other variables. 

According to Rick Merrifield, former Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services director (and now on Heal the Ocean’s advisory board), the study “confirms concerns that have been noted for decades (since the 70’s) related to groundwater pollution and human health as a result of high-density development using OWTS in areas with shallow groundwater.”  Commenting on Los Olivos in particular, Mr. Merrifield stated, “Onsite systems have been in constant use for sewage disposal in Los Olivos since the 1880s. That's almost 140 years!” Having studied the septic system situation in Los Olivos during his time as EHS director, Merrifield had noted the “extreme density” of systems (lots as small as 4,500 square feet whereas the Regional Board standard is at least one acre - 43,560 sf) - and the inability to expand systems as they wear out because there is so little undeveloped area. Merrifield also noted a river runs through the center of town, and that groundwater is as shallow as 10-12 feet deep.    

The former Santa Barbara County EHS director notes that nitrates are useful as indicators of pollution from sewage disposal systems and/or agricultural fertilizers. The Santa Ynez River Valley Groundwater Basin report observes that while agricultural fertilizers are also a known source of nitrates, proximity to farmland has a much smaller impact than the density of septic systems. “While it's true that nitrate can come from livestock and crops, that typically happens only when the source of nitrate is somewhat concentrated, not on open pasture land,” says Merrifield.  “The report states pretty clearly that there is a correlation between OWTS density and nitrate levels in the groundwater.” 

For more details from the report, click here.

The Santa Ynez River Valley Groundwater Basin Characterization report is part of a larger study of the groundwater basins in Santa Barbara County.  It is being released just as the recently formed Los Olivos Community Services District (LOCSD) considers how to proceed in addressing the wastewater problems in that community.  The district was formed as a direct result of earlier studies that have indicated that the area’s aged and dense septic systems are potentially impacting groundwater. In granting the formation of LOCSD on April 5, 2018, the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) stipulated that the Los Olivos District would complete the Proposition 2018 assessment process (to fund a wastewater system) by April 5, 2019 (Resolution 17-04) or be dissolved. LOCSD has received a one-year extension – to April 5, 2020 – to have this assessment process in place.

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Jones13 Jul 16, 2019 04:13 PM
Valley Septic Systems Linked to Elevated Nitrates in Drinking Water

Good points JAK and Shasta Guy. To add: Janin Acres does NOT have high nitrate levels. ALL water systems in the Santa Ynez Valley meet all requirements for quality. Please do better research. Also writing that the Janin Acres area is high density adjacent to the Santa Ynez River is not true. Parcels range from 1 acre to 25 acres located off Hwy 246, not the river. Neither high density nor adjacent to the river. This study was funded by Heal the Ocean.

Shasta Guy Jul 13, 2019 09:02 PM
Valley Septic Systems Linked to Elevated Nitrates in Drinking Water

JAK, you’re right about the lack of numbers. Septic and fertilizers do increase nitrates, but without reporting the values no risk can be assigned to it. It’s quite possible that a single slice of bacon has more nitrates in than gallons of valley water. Back to numbers, I did click the link in the article and way down starting around p26 they start quoting nitrate concentrations. Some values are a lot less than a slice of cured bacon, but some do seem elevated. More worrisome are the arsenic levels I briefly saw. For the As, I’d definitely have an RO system for drinking water.

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