Sanitary Sewer System Waste Discharge Requirements hit 10 year mark – Jim Fischer at The State Water Board provides feedback on what has been accomplished

On the heels of the 10 year anniversary since statewide adoption of the SSS WDRs, we interviewed Jim Fischer, experienced Investigator and former statewide Program Manager at the State Water Resources Control Board.  Jim provides his perspective and feedback on what the program has accomplished and discusses a few of the key requirements, best practices observed, and lessons learned.
Christoph Dobson (CWEA Past President) and Jim Fischer

Christoph Dobson (CWEA Past President) and Jim Fischer

A sanitary sewer overflow (SSO), commonly called a “sewer spill” is an overflow or release of wastewater from a sanitary sewer system. SSOs often contain high levels of suspended solids, pathogenic organisms, toxic pollutants, nutrients, oil, and grease. SSOs pollute surface and ground waters, and threaten public health. SSOs can inundate properties, pollute rivers and streams, and cause the closure of beaches and other recreational areas.

1.What is California doing to reduce SSOs? California has a comprehensive SSO reduction program. California lawmakers in early 2000s realized the need to deal with SSOs (see Water Code section 13193). In response, on May 2, 2006, the State Water Board adopted Sanitary Sewer Systems Waste Discharge Requirements (the SSS WDRs), the most advanced regulations in the nation. The regulations provide a regulatory framework for SSO notification, reporting, and sewer system management. The Sewer System Management Plan (SSMP) is the cornerstone in the regulations, which aims to reduce SSOs by proactively requiring proper and efficient management, operation and maintenance, while taking into consideration risk management and cost benefit analysis*.  Additionally, our Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the California Water Environment (CWEA) has been a tremendous help over the past 10 years with improving compliance with its extensive training efforts on the regulations. *See Finding 5 on page 2 of the SSS WDRs at:

Picture62. What’s your role in the program? Since early 2008, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of the top system maintenance operators all over the state, while managing the State Board SSO Reduction Program before moving to the Office of Enforcement to lead our statewide SSO Enforcement Initiative.  Conducting SSO investigations, inspecting sewer systems, and assisting regional board with enforcement actions and training are some of my current roles.  This “real world” experience has helped us build our technical understanding about many leading SSO “best practices” to more accurately audit sewer operations, maintenance, and management programs.

Picture73. Tell us more about the statewide SSO Enforcement Initiative? Our Enforcement Initiative originated from our 2010 Compliance and Enforcement Plan (posted on the SSO reduction program website)* The plan acknowledges that consistent with the State Water Board’s Water Quality Enforcement Policy and Strategic Plan Update, enforcement will be one of the primary tools to improve compliance.  The Enforcement Initiative includes several objectives aimed at:

  1. Addressing the largest illegal SSOs discharges with formal enforcement actions.
  2. Directing enforcement resources where they are most needed or can have the greatest impacts, including the poorly-managed sewer systems and/or suspect facilities that may be violating existing reporting requirements.
  3. Targeting chronic violators of the SSS WDRs.
  4. Investigating suspect collection systems.
  5. Identifying the most common “non-discharge” issues where the SSS WDRs requirements are being undermined.


Early results of the Enforcement Initiative include responding to the largest illegal SSO violations, conducting ongoing detailed compliance audits, and focused attention on some suspect and poor performing systems.  Staff also thinks the initiative has helped to create a deterrence effect to provide a strong financial incentive to accelerate the anticipation, identification, and correction of violations through better system management.  This includes ensuring adequate funding and projects are being implemented in a timely and systematic fashion.

Picture94. After 10 years since adoption of the regulations, what has been achieved? Lots of SSO reduction progress has been made. Our best examples we’ve seen are systems with high-quality SSMPs designed to proactively “find problems before they find you” as often quoted by Andy Morrison (retired), one of the innovators of best SSO reduction practices who worked at Union Sanitary District.

For a little perspective, it was our early compliance and outreach efforts that provided the foundation necessary for improving compliance metrics statewide while also improving the details about what is expected to produce and implement high-quality SSMPs.

The early approach then shifted in 2010 to a new model with targeted audits and inspections statewide to further verify spill data accuracy, document deficiencies, and gain much more insights about system operations, maintenance, management, and best practices. Targeted enforcement has also played a key role in providing an ongoing incentive for ensuring that adequate funding and management is in place, particularly for those out of compliance with years of deferred maintenance and poor governing board oversight.

5. What does the statewide data show? The good news is that the numbers of SSOs are being reduced as shown in the chart below. The self-reported data in CIWQS by Enrollees indicates that the number of SSOs is decreasing.*  This suggests that the SSS WDRs are an effective means of reducing and/or mitigating SSOs.  The bad news is that the data still shows that the volume of SSOs discharged to surface waters during large wet weather years still remains high and tracks consistently when it rains.  The statewide statistics show nearly 50,000 individual SSO events reported by Enrollees, averaging approximately 14 SSOs per day.  Total volume of sewage reported that surface water exceeds 184 million gallons, averaging approximately 53,000 gallons discharged daily.


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*See FY 13/14 SSO Reduction Program Report, available at:

6. What have Enrollees have you noticed doing well with implementation? Many Enrollees have dramatically addressed system problems and reduced their SSOs since the program started which we applaud. We’ve made it to more than 75 systems all over the state and noted a wide variety of successful SSO reduction elements in place. Examples include Culver City, Folsom City, Chico City, Glendale City, Santa Barbara City, Laguna Beach City, Union Sanitary District, South Placer MUD, LA County Sanitation Districts No. 5, Barstow City, and Crestline Sanitation District.


“We communicate more with our satellite agencies. Field staff take pride and ownership in their area of responsibility.” – Mark Chamberlin, Eastern Municipal Water District 

7. What have you noticed Enrollees struggling with the most? Since inception, several significant recurring violations have been identified, including the following:

  1. Insufficient sewer rates/funding, system inspections, repairs, and capital projects.
  2. Failure to conduct SSMP Program Audits required every 2 years, including deficiencies to demonstrate effectiveness and compliance [see Provisions D.13 (ix) and D.13(x)].
  3. Failure to develop the required Water Quality Monitoring Plan for SSOs greater than 50,000 gallons reaching surface water.
  4. Weak SSO record documentation including inaccurate volume estimations.

8. Looking back, are there any lessons learned? The cooperative approach has paid big dividends. Targeted enforcement has also played a major role in convincing some governing boards to “step-up” their existing programs to address funding and other system deficiencies.

9. What parts of the permit need more work and refinement? The State Board visited this issue back in 2013.  The following were several of the top issues identified, many of which are still relevant for supporting future refinements:

  1. Operator certification requirements and how they affect SSO reduction performance.
  2. Refined data analysis to better evaluate system performance (e.g., $ spent/mile vs. spill rates).
  3. Enhancements to SSMP Self-Audit and record keeping requirements.
  4. Additional asset management requirements.
  5. Additional capital improvement requirements.

Picture1110. Based on your numerous audits conducted statewide so far, what issues top the list? Many documented violations stem from inadequate sewer system capital improvement programs and we’ve seen this as a frequent recurring issue.  Without an effective sewer Capital Improvement Program (CIP), ongoing system improvements and SSO reductions cannot be realistically sustained.

As a reminder, all Enrollees are required to implement ongoing infrastructure management with a CIP that identifies and prioritizes system deficiencies and implements short and long-term actions (including replacements) to address each identified deficiency [see Provisions D.13(iv) and D.13(viii)].  An adequate CIP includes time schedules for implementing needed capital improvements to reduce risks of SSOs, but also a schedule for developing and committing funds necessary to implement the CIP.  In the case of sanitary sewer systems, CIPs include not only routine operations and maintenance rehabilitation and replacement, but must also consider the adequacy of hydraulic capacity of the sewer system to ensure that all sewer pipes, pump stations, and other appurtenances are adequately sized for current and projected future growth and perform satisfactorily into the future.  For example, planners and engineers must take into account future growth patterns as well as estimated storm events when identifying, designing, and prioritizing capital improvement projects.  Available industry standards recommend that CIPs should be based on the assessment of current collection system condition, comparison of current and projected future peak flows with the sewer system capacity to determine where hydraulic deficiencies may occur, and a prioritization system that considers the risk of asset failure or the severity of capacity deficiency, which could result in SSOs.

Picture4Most long-term capital improvement projects cost millions of dollars, and unless the Enrollee has adequately prepared for this, the Enrollee (and governing board) is unlikely to have adequate funds to implement the CIP.  Because Enrollees are public agencies, the process to increase sewer rates or property taxes can take years.  Specifically, the SSMP requirements take infrastructure and funding realities into account, requiring all Enrollees to establish schedules for the CIP and for developing the funds needed to implement the CIP.  Additionally, to satisfy the SSMP program audit requirements to evaluate program effectiveness [section D.13(x) and related components in Provision D.13(ix)], Enrollees must evaluate the health of their ongoing CIP to ensure that their plans have adequately prioritized capacity, rehabilitation, and replacement projects, and also ensure projected funding mechanisms will be adequate to cover the CIP costs.  With economic upturns and downturns, shifting demographic patterns, potential changes in SSO rates and causes, not to mention the inevitable surprises that come with operating a dynamic and complicated infrastructure, this evaluation is not something that can be handled with a simple “yes” or “no” audit checklist as discovered with many of the inspections.

Also, industry trade groups understand the harmony of capital improvement and the requirements in the SSS WDRs.  For example, publicly available best recommended practices* states, “The core purpose of the [capital improvement] program should be to reduce the occurrence of preventable SSOs, and minimize the cost of maintaining the overall condition and level of service of the collection system over a long period of time.”

Additionally, these best management tools developed by industry trade groups provide a general framework including methods of developing a CIP and capacity-related problem areas and practices for prioritizing capital improvements to address hydraulic capacity.  For example, they state “Hydraulic or capacity improvements may need to be prioritized by establishing a level of risk posed by a capacity deficient pipe segment can help set the priority of addressing the problem.  Some factors to consider in establishing the risk level are the severity of the capacity deficiency (peak flow versus pipe capacity); structural defects; the location of the potential spill with respect to public exposure; and site conditions such as topography to provide quick drainage and minimize opportunity for human exposure or proximity to sensitive habitat.  While some of these considerations require using professional judgment, establishing relative risk can provide a justification of sequencing projects when a program of improvements will be implemented over time.”

*Many available strategies and best management practices (BMPs) for SSMPs, including guidelines to reduce SSOs are publicly available.  For example, a comprehensive collection of BMPs developed and published jointly by the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA) and Central Valley Clean Water Agencies, is available publicly for download at:

11. What do you envision to see over the next 10 years? I believe technology advances and asset management practices will play major roles in improving SSO reductions well into the future. I can also envision leaning even harder than before on the CWEA MOA to improve the program.  Last, since both regional boards and also the USEPA Region 9 are continuing to expand their compliance inspections, I expect to see a jump in the statewide metrics.  So, if you haven’t already started to prepare for an audit, we urge you to get started as soon as possible to be well-prepared!

12. What about state funding for sewers? Anyone interested in pursuing loans and grant funding should visit our Division of Financial Assistance (DFA) website for more information about how to apply at:

13. What would you recommend to stay informed? I urge everyone interested in SSO outreach materials, compliance reports, and enforcement actions to periodically visit our SSO Reduction Program library at:

14. Is there anything else you would like to add? It’s very exciting to see so many regional boards expanding their focus and dedication to the program over the past few years.  Second, I would to thank my own leadership at the State Board for their continued support, dedication, and attention to this effort.  Finally, I’d like to personally acknowledge some of the sewer experts who volunteer their efforts to help shape and improve our program including Nick Arhontes, Christoph Dobson, Andy Morrison, Gary Batis, Chris Ewers, Rich Cunningham, Michael Flores, Paul Causey, Yaz Emrani, and David Patzer.

Thank you to CWEA for the opportunity to provide comments about this important milestone and I look forward to providing a future update!


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Megan Barillo

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