How private septic systems are blocking Well #7—and how to solve the problem 

At the annual meeting and on Next Door, shareholders urged Crestview to reapply for a critical Well #7 permit.  They focus on CC&Rs and HOA consent and seem unaware that existing septic systems are the biggest obstacle to getting the critical land use permit for Well #7.  We explain in this post.

A process started June 19, 2012 to have State regulations replace long-standing local regulation of private septic systems.  On August 7, 2018, Ventura County replaced its old regulations with its new “Local Agency Management Program” for privately-owned septic systems.  This recent rule change explains why people who have seen water wells and septic systems coexist for decades in Camarillo are puzzled by the controversy about 200 feet versus 600 feet minimum distance between a septic system and a public water well.

Crestview and its consultants may have been unaware of these rule changes when it submitted its Well #7 application May 15, 2019.  In fact, it was not until a month before the Board of Supervisors hearing on September 14, 2021 that Crestview seemed, grudgingly, to accept the new reality that up to 30 septic systems within 600 feet of the planned new well would be made “nonconforming uses” by Well #7.

What that means is that the owner seeking to modify or replace the system, would be subject to the new rules.  He would have to find and engage a qualified professional to prepare a report showing that effluent from a new seepage pit would not reach groundwater or the well in less than two years.  If the County were unpersuaded, the owner would be required to install an “advanced treatment unit” at a cost in the neighborhood of $77,000 and to engage a professional firm to maintain the system and analyze water samples for about $3,500 per year.  All this would be about $200,000 over 25 years.

That unusual risk would have to be disclosed to lenders and buyers and would immediately and permanently drive down the value of the property by about $100,000, according to one local real estate professional.  Imagine what would happen to a seller who encounters this problem in escrow.

There seem to be two alternatives:  Crestview could assume all the extra costs and risks imposed on neighbors by the existence of Well #7, or the well could be relocated to an area where there are no septic systems.  Some people who have looked at alternative locations think they would be cheaper–and faster–than the current site, but Crestview has announced it is not considering such options.

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5 Replies to “How private septic systems are blocking Well #7—and how to solve the problem ”

  1. Dear Editor,
    This post is misleading, in that it focuses on only part of the regulations and does not include all relevant sections. Please look at section 9.4.10, which reads, “Except as provided in 9.4.11, new or replacement OWTS with horizontal setbacks less than 600’ that are more than 20’ deep need to be evaluated for the two-year travel time for microbiological contaminants.” As the above code instructs, before 9.4.10 applies, you must read section 9.4.11, which is the “exception” to the “evaluation” requirement. Section 9.4.11 states that the evaluation is needed “unless there is no indication that the previous system is adversely affecting the public water source, and there is limited potential that the replacement system could impact the water source based on topography, soil depth, soil texture, and groundwater separation.”

    What that means is, should an owner want to rebuild an OWTS within the 600’ radius of a public well, if there is no prior contamination of the water source from that system (which there never has been in the 70 years Crestview has operated wells in this area), and if there is limited potential for future contamination based on soil depth, texture, and separation from groundwater (which is next to impossible given the clay-like soil here and the fact that the groundwater is 540 feet below the seepage pits), nothing needs to be done. However, just in case there *was* the potential for contamination of water 540 feet down, the code only requires an “evaluation of the setback needed for a 2-year travel time of contaminants.” Crestview did that out of an abundance of caution, and the scientist they hired showed contaminants could travel 10 feet in two years. Thus, given the absence of prior contamination, and no proof that contaminants can travel 540+ feet in two years, NONE of the septic systems within 600′ horizontal radius of the proposed well could possibly be “nonconforming,” and absolutely no additional permitting burden or remediation measures are needed in order to rebuild or repair those OTWS – if the owners of those systems ever needed to do so. And there is certainly no loss in home value from this almost imaginary risk that compares to the loss in value from a home having no access to water.

    The regulations you cite, the State of California OWTS Policy, in other locations address OTWS installation with groundwater levels “three feet” below effluent dispersal systems (see section 10.10.2). This document is meant to govern installations of OWTS in a wide variety of areas across the state, including areas where the water table is much higher and contamination is possible. The groundwater is so far beneath us here that none of the OTWS systems in this area pose a risk to the water that would be drawn from either Well 7 or 8.

    Our individual and collective rights to water are at stake. Please be cautious in these posts.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comment. It seems to be the same argument that Crestview made repeatedly to the County and eventually lost. Here is what EHD Director Sean Debley said in response to a question from Supervisor Devere:

    “So, in Table H-1 there is a reference to a two-year travel study associated with wells that are—excuse me, septic systems—that are greater than 200 feet but less than 600 feet from a well. So that would be a typical ask for a new septic system next to an existing well. I’m not sure if that answered your question or not.”

    The video is at 10:07:52 of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk5X-A0BYxE.

  3. Dear Editor,

    Your response oversimplifies and misunderstands the issue. The quote above was simply Director Sean Debley’s recitation of part of the California OWTS Policy, adopted as part of VCRMA Building Codes, and was in response to a general question. His statement was accurate as to what the OWTS Policy states. But it has no practical effect on the septic systems within 600′ of proposed Well 7 or 8.

    Based on the quote you provided in your response, and pursuant to California Government Code §6250 et. seq., I submitted a Public Records Act request to Mr. Debley at VC Environmental Health, asking for any and all records possessed by the county wherein applications for a repaired or replaced septic system (OWTS) within 600′ of a water well required completion of a two-year time travel study for microbiological contaminants.

    His answer? ZERO.

    Here is the quote from his written response: “EHD has never received an OWTS application that included the special study you describe.” Again, this is for the entire county, and since the policy was adopted in 2018. A follow-up conversation with him confirmed that the water table here is just too low to be a problem. The OWTS Policy’s exemption, outlined in my earlier post (section 9.4.11), would be satisfied by the engineer installing/repairing a new OWTS simply reviewing the water quality reports already generated by Crestview Mutual Water Company to determine the system is not impairing the water supply. No new “studies” or “tests” need to be done, because Crestview already does ongoing water testing, and already did a soil texture/topography/groundwater separation study. (You might be surprised to learn just how much Crestview’s small staff and unpaid Board of Directors does, and how well they do it. I have been. But it takes a little more effort than just posting anonymous criticism.)

    The entire OWTS Policy, available here, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/owts/docs/owts_policy.pdf, contains an attachment that may help you see this more clearly. Although the policy is applicable to the whole state, it was created primarily to address the risk of impairment to water bodies listed in Attachment 2. Within Attachment 2, of the 54 different areas of concern listed, the only places in Ventura County where it was deemed “likely that [an] operating OWTS will subsequently be determined to be a contributing source of pathogens… and likely that new OWTS installations discharging within 600 feet of the water body would contribute to the impairment” (which is what could trigger modifications) are water bodies at Rincon Creek (in west Ventura) and Canada Large (Ventura River Watershed). Both of those locations are between 15-20 miles – yes, miles – away from the proposed location of Well 7 or 8, which would draw from the Las Posas basin. Please see pages 46-48 of the OWTS Policy.

    Fears about septic systems within 600′ of either Well 7 or 8 becoming burdened with “testing” or “costly modifications” upon repair or replacement are imaginary. There’s a greater chance of a meteor hitting one of those septic systems than groundwater levels rising to the point that an OWTS within miles of either Well 7 or 8 will require modification. A far greater and more realistic concern is losing all of our homes to fire, when lack of access to our own water source subjects us to extreme draught restriction measures, turning the Las Posas hillside into a tinderbox.

  4. Dear Ms. Temple:

    I am retired after more than 50 years as a business executive and business and environmental lawyer. As a young man I joined a startup energy company and left 11 years later as senior vice president for environmental affairs and government relations of what had become a Fortune 500 company. As I rose through the ranks, I had responsibility for mineral lands, water rights, and a geology department that was respected by our mining partners including Exxon and Shell. The environmental responsibility included four refineries and one very large mining project. Later, as a practicing lawyer, I worked with geologists and public agencies on matters involving hazardous waste contamination of land, including several Superfund sites. As a result, I know what good geological work looks like. Another thing I have learned from my experience, including experience as chief legal officer and director of a public company, is that only a fool relies on anybody’s unsigned and/or unauthorized representations about an important matter.

    As you may know, I live next door to proposed Well #8, which has the same septic system issues as Well #7. I participated in preparing lengthy comments on these issues and submitting them for both public files, and have been active for more than two years in discussions (and document collection) with Ventura County and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, among other public agencies. You have not cited any authorities that I had not carefully studied more than a year and a half ago.

    I have also had a few discussions with Crestview officials. The early ones seemed to have been productive, but since early 2021 Crestview has been unresponsive. Crestview also refused to engage with the neighbors of Well #7, and that may be the biggest reason the Well #7 permit was denied by the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, both on 5-0 votes, after spending more than $884,000. Perhaps a public discussion between you and me could help Crestview—in spite of themselves.

    How large is the risk to home owners?

    You quote Sean Debley as writing, “EHD has never received an OWTS application that included the special study you describe.” That is misleading, because, since the August 2018 effective date of the County’s Local Agency Management Program, https://docs.vcrma.org/images/pdf/eh/septic/LAMP_Approved_08072018.pdf, EHD has never received any application—with or without the special study—for a seepage pit within 600 feet of any public water well. So there is no evidence of what requirements EHD has actually imposed on seepage pit applications within 600 feet—and no clue to what EHD will require if and when it gets such an application.

    Next, you purport to summarize “a follow-up conversation” you had with Mr. Debley and the meaning of certain documents. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Debley has always pointedly refused to say any of that in writing, and he is on video telling the BoS in the Well #7 hearing that a two-year travel time study would be “a typical ask” for septic systems within 600 feet of Well #7. If you are able to share an official document in which Mr. Debley says all that you attribute to him, I congratulate you on achieving what Crestview could not achieve after trying multiple times over two years. Such a document would be interesting and quite worthy of discussion.

    Without it, a homeowner within 600 feet of a public water well would seem to have a disclosure obligation to buyers, listing agents, and lenders about the regulation which, on its face, sets forth certain potentially costly and/or slow procedures set forth in Paragraphs (c) and (f) of footnote 10 on pages 14-15 of the Local Agency Management Program, https://docs.vcrma.org/images/pdf/eh/septic/LAMP_Approved_08072018.pdf, and the possibility of being required to install an advanced treatment unit. Even if the risk is objectively “small,” buyers tend to exaggerate every risk, in their own minds and in price negotiations. I know of nobody who thinks such a disclosure would not hurt the salability and price of the property and likely cause a price concession (or broken deal) if the problem is discovered in escrow.

    Who should bear the risk?

    Throughout the permitting process, there have been ideas floated—and one actual (half-baked) proposal by Crestview to some of the Well #7 neighbors—to have Crestview assume all these risks imposed on affected homeowners. In October 2020, a neighbor of Well #8 proposed to Crestview that the septic system problem there could be entirely resolved by such agreements. This is documented in a consensus conference report of the meeting, but there has never been any Crestview response. I would be satisfied with a properly drafted and secured agreement, and I do not know of any neighbor of either well that has rejected that in principle.

    Why should Crestview not move in this direction? If the risk is as small you think, it would be foolish not to do it because it would erase what might otherwise be about $3 million of destroyed property values imposed on the neighbors of Well #7 and open the way to getting permit. What would it cost Crestview? Maybe nothing more than a disclosure in its financial statements that it has this contingent liability. I think that might impair the company’s credit and the value of its stock, but if the directors disagree they could do it and we will see what happens.

    Instead of having Crestview assume all these risks, how about getting 29 shareholders to volunteer that each of their properties would record an acceptance of the transfer of the risk that presently threatens one of the 29 properties near Well #7? 🙂

    Is there a realistic alternative?

    Yes, there is. I am aware of a better location for Well #7, which location would not affect any septic systems, would be shallower and cheaper to drill, and would produce higher quality water. It has a completely developed hydrogeological assessment and design and a complete professional cost estimate. It has no negatives except a pipeline in Fairway Drive, which would be a little longer than the pipeline in Alviso that exists as a contingency plan for Well #7 if that water requires treatment. It would be cheaper and faster to do this project than to try again at 191 Alviso, but management is refusing to consider alternative locations. Is there a good reason, or even a bad reason, for that refusal?

    There is another promising location at Fairway Drive and Valley Vista, which would affect some septic systems but not nearly as many as would be affected at 191 Alviso. So, if the risk of 29 septic systems is acceptable in principle but deemed too costly, this other location would involve less of such risk. Why not finish the feasibility study that the GM already started on this site?

    There is a third promising site near Reservoir 3 and the treatment plant, but our president would not allow staff to take water quality samples from the existing unused well there.

    The owners of all three alternative sites are interested in granting easements, which would cost on the order of one-tenth as much as buying the luxury residential building site at 191 Alviso.

    Sincerely,

    Roger Chittum

  5. Dear Mr. Chittum,

    I congratulate you on your career, it sounds like you have done much in your lifetime. I did not know you live right next to proposed Well 8. I certainly appreciate your perspective.

    I believe we are in agreement on a few key issues: We need water, we need new wells to get said water, and neighbors surrounding any proposed location for those new wells should not have to incur current or future expense due to VCRMA’s 2018 adoption of the California OWTS Policy (although, as an aside, there are dozens of homeowners within 600’ of our existing wells whose septics became “nonconforming” in 2018, which apparently hasn’t been a problem). I think we also agree the OWTS Policy presents no risk of immediate expenses, only risks of future expenses in the event of repair or replacement. Those risks include, pursuant to OWTS Policy section 9.4.11, (1) the risk a homeowner will have to determine if there has been a past contamination of groundwater from that OWTS; (2) the risk a homeowner will have to hire an engineer to opine as to the likelihood of future contamination; and (3) the risk a homeowner will have to install an advanced treatment system if either (1) or (2) are found to exist.

    Testing is regularly done by Crestview to keep on top of risk #1, so no expense will be incurred by any homeowner for that determination. A geological survey showing our water table is more than 500′ beneath the deepest seepage pits, and a two-year travel time study for microbiological contaminants in this area showing a 10-foot potential spread, have already been done by Crestview in anticipation of expense #2 materializing. So no risk of expenses exists there (although a new geological report could be needed in years ahead should groundwater levels rise and/or the soil in this region undergo significant change, testing which Crestview has already pledged – in writing – to do).

    The odds of all 48 septic systems at issue here (19 systems w/in 600’ of Well 8, and 29 systems w/in 600’ of Well 7) needing to be repaired or replaced during the next 30 years (the approximate lifespan of a well), is low. But a couple might, thus the testing Crestview has already done (and continues to do) might someday be put to use. The odds of any one of those 48 septic systems ever causing contamination – or being at risk of causing contamination – and therefore needing modifications is even lower, given the depths of the groundwater and the condition of the soil. Thus risk (3) will, in all likelihood, never materialize.

    In reality, if (1) or (2) happens, the well will be shut down. But, in the 70 years of Crestview operating wells, contamination has never occurred. And keep in mind that Crestview’s stellar record of water safety has occurred with wells built to lesser specifications than those currently proposed, in closer proximity to septic systems, with higher underground water tables, and with more moisture in the soil to facilitate microbacterial movement.

    So, to answer your question directly, yes, I am, and have been, one of the many Crestview shareholders who supports Crestview indemnifying against the risks of the above-described future expenses befalling homeowners within 600′ radius of a new well due to VCRMA’s 2018 adoption of the California OWTS Policy, as those risks are extremely unlikely to materialize during the lifespan of the well, and if they do they will be of minimal expense. The benefit of new wells extends to all shareholders; the burdens should be borne by all shareholders as well. There have been wildly exaggerated risks of future expenses propounded (“millions of dollars” in liabilities falling to Crestview; “hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost home value”), which is irresponsible speculation not based in reality. Those claims lack credibility and do not help us solve our water problem.

    Given your concession that you are not opposed to Well 8 with a properly drafted indemnification, it sounds like progress is possible. I would be happy to meet in person, if you would be willing, to discuss this further. I believe we have a mutual friend; perhaps we can meet and come up with some language ideas for a robust indemnification to suggest to the Crestview Board and shareholders? A winning solution is possible. Hopefully before our current wells run dry and/or the state of California bans new wells altogether.

    With regard to the alternative locations you mention, I know I speak for many when I say I welcome any and all suggestions for superior well sites. (There are multiple locations just within Las Posas Hills that could potentially be used, as I am attempting to encourage others to consider.) There may be serious issues with proposing out-of-service area locations, as there will be vociferous objections by non-beneficiaries of Crestview to the idea of streets being torn up to lay new piping to serve our needs, but I agree we should consider all alternatives.

    Thank you for your post.

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