Vigilant Wisconsin pumpers beat back legislation to allow surface discharge and lax homeowner septic system inspection … for now

During an already contentious budget battle in the Wisconsin state legislature, a little-known, and last minute, amendment almost made surface discharges allowable for septic systems in the state. Since it was part of the budget bill, there were no hearings on the issue, no debate, and no public notice. But the Wisconsin Onsite Water Recycling Association was able to get the language removed. “Within an hour of getting it removed, it was made clear that a stand-alone bill will be introduced with the same language,” says WOWRA President Todd Stair.

According to Stair, the bill would have removed surface discharge as a reason county inspectors could require replacement of a septic system, unless the discharge crosses the lot line. If the homeowner could divert the discharge from the lot line, replacement would not be required. “A homeowner could conceivably have a 3-acre pond of sewage and not be required to replace the system,” Stair wrote in a message to WOWRA members.

The budget language also said a county could not require replacement unless the household had an income that exceeded the poverty level by 300 percent and homeowners could get a grant to cover 75 percent of the cost.

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Stair says the law would still require replacement if wastewater would get into surface water, groundwater, zones of saturated soil, bedrock or even drain tiles. “I would like someone to explain to me with a straight face how wastewater entering drain tile is more dangerous than at the surface where pets, children, insects, flies, and mosquitoes can come in direct contact with it and easily transport pathogens,” Stair says.

Stair adds that a few state regulators have supported adding another provision that would allow residents to determine on their own if their septic system needs pumping. They can do that now if they take classes to become a POWTS Maintainer, but some regulators have expressed support for removing the training requirement.

Stair talked to Pumper about the surface discharge provision, how WOWRA learned of it, how they fought it, and what others can learn from the situation in Wisconsin:

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Pumper: How did you learn of the proposal to allow surface discharges?

Stair: I learned of the budget provision from two different sources at about the same time. I heard of it from a WOWRA board member who is involved in county code administration, and from Pat Essie, our executive director and lobbyist.

Pumper: What did it take to get the provision removed from the budget bill?

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Stair: We sent emails to legislators and had members contact their legislators. Pat personally went to the Capitol and had several days of face-to-face contact with the person who drafted the budget item as well as legislators who would vote on the budget. He let them know that we didn’t think it was prudent to insert it into the budget rather than drafting a bill, that it would overturn decades of protection of public health, and that it was a very dangerous thing.

It was important that people in our organization worked together to bring this to everyone’s attention, get the word out, contact our elected officials, and to have our lobbyist at the Capitol, at the 11th hour, to give our side before they passed something.

Pumper: Given the economy, is this something other states should worry about?

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Stair: It’s very possible. Everyone should worry about allowing surface discharge or ponding of any effluent or septage. In Wisconsin, we’ve considered any surface discharge to be a failed system, so to just allow a person who is not knowledgeable to arbitrarily make this code change based on constituent requests is just absolutely dangerous. The Wisconsin onsite wastewater industry has long prided itself as a no-surface-discharge state that has led the nation in protecting public health through uniform codes used by licensed professionals.

Pumper: Do you have suggestions for individuals and industry organizations about staying on top of such things?

Stair: If I wasn’t a member of WOWRA, I don’t know how I would have found out about this. If our organizations didn’t have members who were part of county code administration or didn’t have a lobbyist who was very sensitive to our issues, this could easily have been snuck through the budget process.

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We have to continue to let elected officials know that onsite systems need to be taken seriously and allowed to be designed, installed and regulated in a way that protects public health, not in a way that makes an elected official look good to their constituents for political reasons. We have a code change process that opens it up to public comment and scrutiny.

Pumper: What are you doing to fight any new bill that would be proposed?

Stair: We’re keeping our eyes and ears open to see if it’s going to come back as a stand-alone bill. At least at that point we will have the normal opportunity to scrutinize it, debate it, and to tell our side to those who have to vote on it so they can understand what they are voting on. We are talking to our legislators now so that if the bill does come back, they will be well-informed of our position and will be aware of the dangers of allowing surface discharges.

Pumper: What lessons have you learned?

Stair: There is power in numbers. Being part of a larger organization not only helped us catch this but it also helped us mobilize many people to deal with the elected officials. Many groups were helpful that week during the budget process, including the Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin County Code Administrators, Wisconsin Builders Association, Associated General Contractors, the Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Precast Concrete Association, and the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

Last year, we had legislation dealing with crane and heavy equipment licensing that was introduced at the last minute that we had to defeat. I wonder how a person who is not involved in something like WOWRA would know these things are occurring. Legislators will listen to small businesses, so it’s very important to stay in tune with what is being proposed legislatively and to stay in touch with your elected officials to let them know the consequences of things they are trying to pass.

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