Shelter Masthead

Chapter 11
From The Septic System Owner's Manual
A Tale of Two Sewers


or the first group of folks it happened suddenly: regulatory agencies breezed into town, and announced that everyone was going to have to reduce the bacteria in the local bay by 75 percent … or else! And the agencies knew exactly who the culprits were, even before they did any tests: septic tanks and farmers! On one side of the bay, there was a small town and several houses strung right along the shoreline, some sitting on pilings over the water. Many of these houses had been there since the turn of the century so there were a lot of old septic tanks, and some houses had very limited land for the drainfields. But other homes in the community had adequate land for wastewater disposal, with septic systems apparently working fine. Regulators were talking about a major wastewater project, hooking up all the houses on the bay. Some people started asking questions … the local paper got interested. It would be the start of a long struggle.

In the other town, alongside a river, the first time most townsfolk heard about it was when they got notes in their mailboxes. After ten years of study by a small group of citizens, (including real estate interests), public officials (friends of the real estate interests), and engineers (who had already been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars), townspeople were finally called together and put things to a vote. Pollution had been detected in a stream leading into the river and even though no DNA testing was done to determine if the pollution was animal or human, they knew exactly what was causing the problem … septic tanks!

Further, it was not a one-person/one-vote ballot. Businesses got more than one vote (such as ten for a restaurant), and the real estate developer who was part of the original group got 20 or 30 votes, one for each of his undeveloped lots. There were 200 undeveloped lots in all, each with a vote.

The plan proposed pumping sewage alongside a scenic river down a road prone to slippage and landslides, and spreading it on the meadow of a beautiful riverside ranch that had been in the hands of a ranching family for over a hundred years. Since the ranchers understandably didn’t want to sell their land for sewage disposal, the county was prepared to take the ranch by legal action for eminent domain. By the way, the whole treatment plant would be in the flood plain of a river historically prone to overflowing its banks. After an initial meeting, many residents got upset. The local paper got interested. It would be the start of a long battle.

In the town beside the bay, homeowners were told that all their septic systems were failing. However, the county had a program where people could have their septic tanks inspected for free at no risk of penalty, so homeowners by and large did this. What the engineers had told them turned out not to be the case … only a handful had problems, many easily corrected. There were, however, a couple of very old ones right on the water that had to have their waste pumped and trucked away. After the survey, homeowners set about educating themselves about what was really going on with their septic systems. They formed a community study group designed to keep all property owners informed. They also took the important step of asking the county to pay for a project coordinator, who would work on behalf of the residents. They started to put together a plan.

In the town beside the river, things went from bad to worse. There had been absolutely no public outreach during the planning process, so the extent of the plans caught most of the townspeople by surprise. It looked like it was going to cost them tens of thousands of dollars to hook up to the new system, and around a hundred dollars a month per household for operating expenses. Homeowners were angry. At one meeting, flyers were distributed (it turned out paid for by the local real estate developer) scaring people about not being able to sell, remodel, or refinance their homes. There were handouts that slammed onsite treatment systems (directly contradicting Environmental Protection Agency documents). One flyer said that new sewer systems would be like a new car: “It smells good, feels good, and it’s more reliable. The community will start to shine!” When a community member asked questions about the real need for the project and why the lack of scientific tests, the four presenters — the local supervisor, the engineer and two county bureaucrats — ducked every issue.

Back in the town by the bay, one of the first things the people did was to contact SFIC (Small Flows Information Clearinghouse). They started with a reprint from the SFIC magazine, Pipeline, the Winter 1997 issue, entitled “Choose the Right Consultant for Your Wastewater Project.”

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