Housing Development in South Dakota Depends on Septic Systems

Lack of quality land to fill demand for new homes pushes decentralized wastewater professionals to look toward onsite technologies and technical training.
Housing Development in South Dakota Depends on Septic Systems
Contact Scott Hipple, South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources environmental scientist, at 605 /773-3351 or go to www.denr.sd.gov/des/fp/septic.aspx.

People love living out in the country. As more people go in for the rural lifestyle in South Dakota, the demand for septic systems is growing and challenging installers, because most of the good lots have already been developed.

Environmental scientist Scott Hipple with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) says most of the 654 certified installers do a good job following the regulations set forth by the state, which establishes the minimum standards, and the municipalities, sewer districts and 66 counties that can have more stringent regulations.

What issues keep you busy in South Dakota?

Hipple: In certain parts of the state, we have extremely high seasonal groundwater levels and some have really impervious soils. Then we have the Black Hills that has both bedrock and groundwater issues, not to mention that it is a major recharge area for several important aquifers in the state. Our regulations are working to protect the groundwater, provided people follow the rules.

We do have a plan review program that is set up mainly for commercial operations, but we will review any plan for a residential system that is submitted. We get them mainly if they need a variance to one of the rules. The state does not have a construction inspection program.

We’d like counties to set up inspection programs, or at least permitting programs. It’s easier to enforce if it is at the local level. We’d like them to get a copy of what is being installed so later we don’t have a homeowner build a garage on top of the drainfield system and then wonder why it’s backing up into the home. Some counties have inspection programs, especially out in the Black Hills.

Looking ahead, what is it that will challenge the industry in the future?

Hipple: About 27 percent of homes in South Dakota have onsite systems and that number is increasing, because people want to move out into the country. Probably 30 to 35 percent of new construction is using onsite systems.

The Black Hills are a favorite for people. Unfortunately, most of the areas that have decent soils in the Black Hills have already been built on. Trying to locate a septic system on some of these lots is very difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes, they have to resort to holding tanks and have them pumped.

So we’re getting into more creative ways to build on lots that aren’t very conforming. Such as taking the low spots where the soil has settled and putting in community cluster systems. In that case, all the homes are required to have an advanced treatment system and they are part of a sanitary district that has the legal right to operate, maintain and pump those systems. That has worked well.

We’ve also had some older homes and cabins located around lakes where there have been issues with nitrates and fecals getting into the lakes. They’ve come to our department and received funding to do a central collection system from their tanks using lift stations and a lagoon system. Another town put in four large drainfields, but only needs to use three of them. They rotate one out every year to let it rest.

In Lincoln County (far southeast corner of the state), the glaciers left an impervious layer of clay 14 to 24 feet underground with a perched water table above it. So in a lot of the county, you’ll find sandy water at 30 inches. You end up using a mound system and there has to be at least 4 feet of separation between the bottom of the pipe and the seasonal high groundwater level. So some installers have to do creative landscaping to avoid an eyesore.

Are you generally happy with the performance of installers?

Hipple: The vast majority are doing a decent job of following the rules, but you always have a couple of bad apples. The biggest issue for me is that not everybody is doing percolation tests like they should.

DENR has a certification program for installers. We mail the rules to them and they have to do an open-book test. If they pass, they are certified for five years. There is no fee and no continuing education requirement. One county, Pennington, does have a requirement for continuing education.

We used to have laws and a program to certify and train pumpers. The Legislature let that sun set many years ago, in the late 1990s. They just thought it was unnecessary and burdensome. So land application is now subject to the EPA 503 biosolids rule. Our best guess is that we have about 30 to 50 companies that do just pumping; most are in the Black Hills. A lot of installers also do pumping.

It would be easier for us to track what’s going on and make sure things are being done appropriately if we had our own (pumping) rules. The only time we find out something is going on is when we receive a complaint. We get about a dozen pumper complaints a year, mainly discharging close to a housing development, too close to a creek, or not spreading or liming the product. We investigate those complaints. If they have, in fact, discharged inappropriately, we can use some of our pollution control rules. Usually what we do is work with the pumper to bring the operation back into compliance.

What is the most common violation by installers?

Hipple: They may be installing systems in clay soils that are obviously way too small, and homeowners have systems fail within a couple of years. We’ve had installers who use traditional drainfield systems in areas with very high seasonal groundwater and they end up backing up into the home or draining to the surface.

Then it becomes an issue of having the system replaced and us going after the installers for not having followed the rules, and the homeowner has to try to get financial reparations for the system by taking them to court.

With no installer association, how do you communicate information, including rule changes, to the industry?

Hipple: When we have a proposed change to administrative rules and it has gone through review and rewrite in the department, we then notify installers by mail and post the changes online where they can offer their comments. We haven’t done any rewrites in some time. We did one about seven years ago and we got quite a few comments.

I think it would be advantageous to work with an organized installers group. They would be very good at helping get more communication out to installers. I’ve had several of them talk to me about starting an organization over the years, but that’s as far as it’s gone.


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