The online RCAP Resources Library has a variety of resources that are useful to small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

Advice for Managed Onsite Wastewater Systems

Following are best practices gleaned from interviews with three onsite wastewater management entities in California—a small, rural community; a medium coastal community; and a large community.

Consider the advice they give if your community has an entity to manage onsite wastewater treatment or is thinking about creating one.

  • Hire or contract with staff: Some entities choose to hire staff to run their management entity, while others contract out the services. When evaluating these options, consider what the entity wants and needs from the staff. One community commented that their contractor never told them of the inspection and monitoring findings. The community commented that they want to know what repairs were required and how many systems were running well or marginally. Most communities want to know how their assets are being spent and how the program has added value to their community.
  • Have an operating permit: Issuing operating permits helps keep systems in compliance and are a good way to commit the homeowner to taking care of repairs or replacements. Operating permits are issued by an inspector, and the length of the permit is dependent on how soon the homeowner can arrange to have the repair made. The permit is recorded with the local county recorder’s office and is attached to the property’s title. If the homeowner wishes to sell or refinance without performing the repair/replacement listed on the permit, a title search will reveal that restrictions are in place and pending action.
  • Provide on-going education: It is important to keep homeowners engaged and consistently learning how to improve their systems as well as save money. In the interviews, the communities shared that effective outreach has included monthly articles in local newspapers, community potlucks, local TV and radio announcements, websites, and disseminating information at local schools. Most communities want to know more about their system and how they can make it better. You can host a speaker’s panel where vendors of the newest systems give presentations to the community. Make sure you are reaching out to all types of residents on a regular basis.
  • Use the learning from others to advocate for management of septic systems: Continue to share the success of other communities that have been providing management services withyour community. Take a fact sheet or informational brochure about your system with you in the field to spread the word. These tools can be given to local installers, pumpers, realtors, local agencies and schools.
  • Have a database for tracking: Use the system information in your database to make changes in the community wastewater program. Review your data every five years, and identify what can be changed to enhance the program. One community reduced the size of a future expansion area. They reviewed their data over a five-year period and identified that the number of failed systems had reduced significantly, meaning they wouldn’t need additional land for drain fields.
  • Educate realtors on the benefits of management: Most realtors like having a responsible management entity (RME) to contact when a house is being purchased or sold. Realtors liked the convenience of sitting down with the RME, reviewing the file and becoming better informed of past maintenance as well as any problems with the system. Many realtors said it made disclosure laws a little easier to comply with when they knew so much about a home’s system; homeowners also felt it increased their property value. Many new residents move from cities to smaller communities and don’t know how to care for or maintain a septic system; having a RME is a good investment and a way to reduce maintenance costs.

How the three California communities manage their onsite treatment systems

Decentralized wastewater management entities have a long-standing history in California. Some of these entities have been managing community septic systems for more than 35 years, and California houses one of the largest systems with 11,000 individual septic systems. While some would consider sizable cities that stay on managed septic systems challenging, many community residents, local authorities and regulatory bodies believe that this type of system can be a long-term affordable and sustainable option.

Sea Ranch

Marshall On-Site Wastewater Disposal Zone


A two-hour drive north from San Francisco, the Sea Ranch community extends ten miles along the northern California coastline. Built in the 60s and 70s, many of the homes relied on individual wastewater systems. Half the homes were built in an area susceptible to high groundwater, with coastal meadows and terrace soils causing wastewater system malfunctions. Aging infrastructure, challenging conditions and poor system maintenance in this upscale resort community posed a threat to local and coastal waterways. As a result, a moratorium was placed on future development in the community.

Systems served: 2,300 lots, 1,500 homes with individual septic systems, about 600 homes on two large, clustered systems.

Annual operating budget: $250,000; per system/household fee of $195

Marshall is located in Marin County, along the eastern shore of Tomalas Bay, and is 15 miles southeast of Bodega Bay. The community systems were identified as a contributing source of public health and water-quality problems in Tomalas Bay. The project included the development of a septic tank effluent pumping (STEP) collection system and community leach field for the first phase of homes. An onsite wastewater management zone was formed to oversee operation and maintenance.

Systems served: Currently, 35 homes are on the inspection and monitoring program (first phase). The second phase will bring in an additional 20 properties.

Operating costs: Residents pay $235.50 monthly, which includes a $135 loan payment and $100.50 operations and maintenance tax assessment. Annual costs do not include an additional $350 for septic tank pumping, which occurs every three to four years.

The Town of Paradise is the largest unsewered city in California. The town’s Onsite Sanitation Division approves the design and monitors the operation of wastewater disposal. Water quality is constantly monitored and reviewed by state agencies. The work of the division has historically received high marks from residents, developers, the building trades community, and regulatory agencies.

System served: 11,000 septic systems in an 18.5-square-mile area.

Operating cost: Residents pay $31.22 annually for an operating permit. Residents also pay $415 for a pumping evaluation fee.



Thanks to Karen McBride, an Environmental Rural Development Specialist in California for RCAC, the Western RCAP, for this article. She is the originator of the Sea Ranch On-Site Wastewater Zone and has been working with rural communities and RCAC for the past 16 years.