This article appeared in the News Guard reporting on the March 8th City Council meeting. As the article reports it is our understanding that the City Attorney must still draft the ordinance and that the DLWID will hold at least one public meeting on the matter once a draft ordinance is made available for review.
By Patrick Alexander
The News Guard 3/10/2010 5:00:00 AM
A septic system inspection program with water shut-off as the ultimate penalty for non-compliance is set to become law after Lincoln City Council approved the approach at its March 8 meeting.
Details of the program will be decided later this year through a process that will include public hearings but both Council and the Devils Lake Water Improvement District (DLWID) board of directors have agreed on the main points:
- The program will require all 632 properties with septic systems within the Devils Lake watershed to have an inspection every 10 years.
- Properties whose systems are seen as being most at risk of failure, due to age or the type of tank used, will be top priorities for inspection.
- The City will contract with a private operator to do the inspections, with individual property owners footing the bill.
- Septic tanks will be pumped only if the inspector deems it beneficial to the system.
The program would require that the inspector report any failing septic system to the County, which would then be obliged under state law to work with the property owner to address the problem, at the property owner’s expense.
Councilor Chester Noreikis opposed the compulsory approach and asked his colleagues to consider a voluntary inspection program instead.
He said a softer approach would allow the City to gather data upon which to base future decisions.
“We do not have any data regarding failing septic systems in the Devils Lake watershed,” he said. “No data on which are failing and no data on which are functioning properly. We do not know if we have a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed.'”
Noreikis said using the threat of water shut-off as “a very large hammer” would give the public more reason to mistrust, resent or hate government.
Instead, he proposed that DLWID pay for sanitary surveys for any interested watershed property owners.
The survey would consist of an inspector looking at the septic set-up, checking for telltale odors and using a dye to test whether systems are discharging sewage directly into the lake.
City Manager David Hawker said he feared a voluntary program would mirror the experience of the Eugene Water and Electric Board, which, in 2008 and 2009, offered free inspections to 750 septic tank owners in its service area and had just 309 takers.
Councilor Gary Ellingson supported the mandatory inspection plan, saying the City has a duty to tackle pollution in the lake, which is listed as an impaired waterway by the Environmental Protection Agency.
He drew attention to the fact that a functioning septic system traps 80 to 90 percent of phosphorous, one of the nutrients that fuels the lake’s annual blooms of cyanobacteria.
However, Councilor Dick Anderson pointed out that best estimates show septic tanks are responsible for just 14 percent of the total amount of phosphorous in the lake.
Anderson also pointed out that septic systems do little to trap nitrogen, the other main nutrient associated with cyanobacteria growth.
Best estimates indicate septic systems are responsible for 25 percent of the nitrogen that flows into the lake.
“That’s not going to change with this proposal,” Anderson said, adding that Noreikis’ plan presented a better first step.
Hawker said failing septics also pump bacteria such as E. coli into the lake, something he said could trigger a federal lawsuit if linked to deaths of endangered Coho salmon.
Mayor Lori Hollingsworth said the City should do what it can to cut the amount of pollution entering the lake even if it cannot address all pollutants.
She pointed out that state law already requires septic system owners to keep their systems in working order but does not provide an enforcement mechanism.
The EPA recommends septic systems should be inspected at least every three years.
Hollingsworth, Ellingson and Councilors Rick Brissette and Sharon Cannon voted in favor of mandatory inspections, directing staff to draft an ordinance that the City can enforce with limited resources.