In this month's regulations update, the state surrounding Chesapeake Bay could require best-available onsite systems, and Wisconsin will consider lessening regulations for high-capacity wells.
The state that surrounds most of Chesapeake Bay, where struggles over water quality have occupied public attention for several years, may revive a rule to require the best available onsite wastewater technology everywhere.
A regulation created by the administration of former Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2012 required best-available technology for all new construction across the state. Current Gov. Larry Hogan reversed the O’Malley regulation last summer. That means best-available systems are required only in environmentally critical areas, defined as coastal lands or lands within 1,000 feet of the bay.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway introduced a bill to write the O’Malley regulation into law, but the bill is struggling in the Maryland Senate. The bill failed to pass a committee by one vote, but then one legislator asked the committee to reconsider its vote.
Opponents of the idea question the need to have homeowners pay for best-available technology on land that may be 25 miles from coastal areas. For example, in voicing its opposition, the Worcester County Commission says requiring best-available technology could add as much as $15,000 to the cost of a home. The county lies along the Atlantic Ocean shore on the eastern side of the Delmarva Peninsula, which contains most of Delaware and forms the Chesapeake Bay on its western side. Supporters of the rule say the nitrogen removed by best-available systems is one of the major pollutants in the bay, and say Hogan’s action was a concession to developers and rural landowners.
In the meantime, the Harford County Council is preparing legislation that would remove the need for best-available systems on any land outside the environmentally critical areas. The county sits on the northwestern end of Chesapeake Bay not far from Baltimore.
If the Senate bill becomes law, money from a special fund would subsidize the approximately $7,500 cost difference between a conventional wastewater system and a best-available system. The bill also proposes an $8,000 fine for any home not using a best-available system where one is required.
The Wisconsin Legislature will again consider easing restrictions on the high-capacity wells that have provoked controversy between agricultural interests and the state’s outdoor recreation community and industry.
State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate, authored the bill that would allow high-capacity wells to be created without review by state regulators provided those wells replace existing permitted wells. A similar bill was approved by the Senate last year, but legislators couldn’t reach a compromise between it and a bill in the Wisconsin Assembly. The Assembly bill included a provision allowing property owners to sue pump operators.
Fitzgerald’s new bill covers replacement wells under various conditions, including transfers of ownership, and allows a high-capacity well without any review of how neighboring property owners may be affected. High-capacity wells draw at least 10,000 gpd. That has been a flashpoint, especially in the middle of the state where a combination of sandy soil and a large, easily tapped aquifer has led to the creation of large irrigated vegetable farms. The area is also prime hunting and fishing territory, and property owners and outdoor recreation enthusiasts charge that the high-capacity wells are drawing too much water and causing lakes, streams and private wells to dry up.
Fitzgerald’s bill would also order studies of the effects of high-capacity wells on surface waters.
In addition to farmers, feedlot operators and the miners of fracking sand for the oil industry have driven an increase in the number of high-capacity wells during the last decade. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association says the wells are important to members, and it argues against studies that linked high-capacity wells to the loss of lakes and rivers connected to groundwater.
After the state began issuing permits under a loosened standard, the environmental group Clean Wisconsin filed a suit to halt them. It argued the permit process should have included consideration of the effects on lakes, rivers and groundwater.
Vagueness in the law stopped one wastewater operator’s plans, but the issue may now be clarified for everyone by the state Legislature.
Wayne Buma, who operates AAA Septic Cleaning in southern Oregon, wanted to process septage and spread the resulting product on farmland as fertilizer. The Jackson County government objected — not on the grounds of public health, but because the state’s land use law is unclear. The county said it isn’t certain whether treatment is allowed on land zoned exclusively for farm use. Generally, state law allows processing only in urban areas, which would increase Buma’s hauling cost.
HB 2179 would clarify the law and allow treatment of biosolids on farms provided the processing is done with mobile equipment. Without the clarification, Buma would have to process wastewater at the location of each tank he pumps. His process involves screening septage to remove debris, then adding agricultural lime to change the pH and kill pathogens.
Algae blooms were a problem in Florida last summer, and now are the target of special funding in the state budget.
Gov. Rick Scott included $40 million in his proposed budget for a matching grant program to help people in communities affected by algae blooms. The money will aid people in converting from septic tanks to municipal sewer. At the peak of the problem last summer, Scott promised to seek money to help remedy it.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Charlie Stone (R-Ocala) sponsored a bill calling for $20 million from the state’s conservation fund to help property owners improve onsite wastewater systems or connect to sewers. That bill is presently going through the committee process.
A supervisor in the town of Southampton on Long Island said he expects his community to follow the lead of East Hampton and require nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems for new construction. Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he expects the revised codes will require such systems only where pollution could reach bays and ponds.
The town will also work on rebate programs to induce homeowners to replace older systems with the latest technology. Money would come from the town’s Community Preservation Fund, which is funded by a fee on real estate transactions.
Homeowners in East Hampton are eligible for payments of $5,000 to $15,000 depending on household income and what system is in place now.
County commissioners in Brown County, Indiana, are working through a complete overhaul of the county septic system ordinance. The county is about 30 miles south of Indianapolis.
The rules have not been revised since 1997. A revision was passed in 2013, but that was challenged with a lawsuit, and a court negated the rules after finding the county’s work had not been properly advertised to the public.
Most areas of the county depend on onsite systems, and under the draft, most homeowners wouldn’t see any effect from the law unless they add to their home, sell the property or have a failing onsite system. A draft of the new ordinance requires an inspection of the system when a property is sold.
John Kennard, a county environmental health specialist, says a random sample of 10 local real estate listings found that six had systems too small for the number of bedrooms detailed in the listing.
Among other changes, the draft ordinance contains rules specific to guest rentals such as bed-and-breakfast establishments, lays out a procedure for evaluating drainfield sites, and sets rules for holding tanks.
Two governments at opposite ends of Canada are grappling with the maintenance of septic systems.
In Central Frontenac Township, Ontario, located about 60 miles southwest of the national capital of Ottawa, the town council approved a septic inspection program. The township is located on Sharbot Lake, a large body of water in a lake-rich part of eastern Ontario.
Property owners will be required to have a licensed pumper inspect onsite systems and report the results to the township. The inspection can take place during a regular pumpout. Property owners must have an inspection on file every five years.
Township Councilman Victor Heese said research by a council committee found only 2 to 4 percent of onsite systems required a major repair or replacement. The council also formed a committee to investigate financial assistance for homeowners unable to pay for system repairs or replacement.
On the other end of the country, the Comox Valley Regional District is considering a mandate to maintain septic systems. The district, which incorporates several local governments, is located on Vancouver Island about 100 miles northwest of the city of Vancouver.
Engineering staff will first work on a public education program to be approved by elected officials this spring. The staff will also investigate a mandatory maintenance program. According to a member of the staff, only the government district around the provincial capital of Victoria has a mandatory maintenance program. That program includes fees to recover costs and a requirement for regular reporting.