Rules & Regs: Florida Governor Acts on Onsite, Water Issues

Also in this month's regulations update, a Wisconsin septic pumper is fined for illegal disposal

Rules & Regs: Florida Governor Acts on Onsite, Water Issues

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The new year brought more to Florida than bills in the Legislature. New governor Ron DeSantis made some water policy announcements in January.

During a trip around the state, DeSantis announced a multipoint executive order to address some of the water-quality issues plaguing the state. One part of the order instructed the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish a septic tank remediation program that would include a requirement for local government matching funds. DeSantis told the DEP to identify opportunities to invest in green infrastructure, such as wetland treatment systems, and he told the department to create an outreach campaign about the importance of conservation and reuse.

DeSantis also ordered the DEP to assemble a task force on the state’s problem with blue-green algae blooms; participate in the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force; continue to explore options to stop Georgia’s water use from affecting the Apalachicola River and Apalachicola Bay; and appoint a chief science officer who would prioritize the collection of data to support research work on current environmental concerns.

Republican DeSantis won his position by just four-tenths of a percentage point following a recount in his race with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. Environmental issues were among the top issues discussed during the campaign. During the past couple of years, state news organizations have spent considerable time reporting on algae blooms and water-quality problems that threaten public health and the state’s vast and important tourism industry.

Also in January, a study published by Miami-Dade County warned of increased danger to onsite systems because of sea-level rise associated with climate change.

About 108,000 properties in the county use onsite systems, the report says. Rising sea levels push groundwater higher, reducing the distance from groundwater to drainfield and thus reducing the ability of soil to provide effluent treatment. More than half of the county’s 105,000 residential onsite systems have annual issues now, the report says.

Removing every tank and installing connections to the municipal sewer system would cost about $3.3 billion, according to the report. At the moment, people who want to connect must cover the cost themselves. Although the average cost is about $15,000, a county official says in some areas the cost would be about $50,000 per property.

Other water action is happening in the Legislature. House committees have HB 85, which, among other things, would require onsite systems to be inspected at least once every five years unless the system is covered by an operating permit.

In the Senate, the Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee heard testimony in January from a researcher who claims that failing septic tanks are the biggest source of nutrient loads in state waterways and should be the priority in solving the state’s water-quality problems.

Brian Lapointe, from Florida Atlantic University, says the state needs to go to war on blue-green algae and do that by focusing on septic systems, not the Everglades reservoir. The reservoir is intended to trap nutrient-rich water flowing off agricultural fields, and it was a topic for DeSantis. In his executive order, he instructed the South Florida Water Management District to immediately start designing the next phase of the reservoir, formally called the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project.

Lapointe’s testimony began with a video funded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which initially opposed the reservoir, writes the Tampa Bay Times.

Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, faults Lapointe’s presentation and tells the Tampa Bay Times she doesn't understand why onsite systems should be blamed for most nutrient problems.

“There is no smoking gun for our water-quality issues and no silver bullet,” she says. “It's unfortunate because while [onsite is] part of the science, it's not all of the science, and for decision-makers to make good decisions, they need all the information.”

Replacing onsite systems in Ravalli County

Ravalli County (Montana) sees a problem developing with onsite systems and is trying to get ahead of it.

“We’ve seen requests to replace septic systems from the late ’70s and early ’80s coming in. It’s only a matter of time before those installed in the late ’80s and early ’90s will begin to fail,” says county Environment Health Director John Palacio, according to the Ravalli Republic newspaper. “We want to have a policy in place so we can act quickly, not just for the landowner, but also for neighboring properties that might be impacted.”

So the county is formulating a set of guidelines to govern replacement of unpermitted systems. There was no permitting system before 1972, yet some homes built between 1972 and 1982 also do not have permits, and the county records for that period are sketchy.

The proposed policy would declare systems installed from 1972 through 1982 to be pre-existing systems, and replacing them would require an installation permit. No expansions would be allowed.

Replacements for systems installed between Jan. 1, 1983, and April 29, 1993, would have to meet current regulations, but again, there would be no expansion allowed to accommodate a change of use at the property. Any system installed after April 29, 1993, would also have to meet current regulations.

Ravalli County is in the western part of Montana, just south of Missoula.

Eligible Montana homeowners can get grant to fix onsite system problems

Because of a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources, Lincoln County (Montana) residents will be able to receive low-interest loans to fix onsite system problems or connect to municipal sewer lines.

The department is providing $40,000 that will create a revolving-loan fund. Interest on money not loaned out will be plowed back into the fund.

To be eligible, people must provide a letter from a bank showing they have been denied personal loans to fix problems, reports The Western News based in Libby. No other financial information will be required.

Interest will be 4 percent, and the size of payments will be based on the ability of the borrower. Property owners would have to get bids from two installers.

Lincoln County forms the northwestern corner of Montana at the Canadian border.

Onsite wastewater impact fees waived for San Diego ‘granny flats’

San Diego County supervisors in January waived impact fees in order to encourage people to build “granny flats” on properties in unincorporated communities.

Onsite wastewater impact fees are waived along with fees for roads and infrastructure, parks and drainage. The program is a five-year trial and will cost the county $11 million to offset the lost fee revenue.

San Diego County allows granny flats to be up to 1,200 square feet. They may be free-standing or attached to existing homes and may include kitchens, bathrooms, living areas and private entrances. They may not be sold as individual homes but may be rented or may provide living space for family, friends, students, the elderly, the disabled or in-home caregivers.

A state law easing restrictions on granny flats took effect in 2018. Both the state and local actions are intended to help ease the shortage of affordable homes in California.

Colorado county puts hold on point-of-sale septic inspection rule

Montezuma County (Colorado) commissioners in January put a six-month hold on a new rule requiring onsite system inspections when a property is sold. The rule took effect Jan. 1.

After complaints from property owners and the real-estate industry, one of the commissioners who supported the rule changed his mind about it. He now says it is government overreach and imposes burdensome costs, according to The Journal newspaper in Cortez. 

Point-of-sale inspections are an option allowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and 22 counties have such programs. Chuck Cousino, a water-quality official with the department, says the concerns aired by citizens in Monetzuma County are common when inspection programs begin. Objections fade as initial glitches are solved and people adjust, he says.

Alaska regulates use of steel tanks

Because of the prevalence of steel tanks in Anchorage, Alaska, the municipality has new rules in place to govern the installation of tanks.

Starting in October 2018, inspectors were required to measure the liquid level in tanks to determine whether they may be leaking. If a tank is 20 to 30 years old and the liquid level is normal, owners are advised the tank may be approaching the end of its life. A tank 30 or more years old should be replaced or at a minimum exposed so it can be examined for deterioration.

Until May 1, 2019, the installation of conventional steel tanks will be legal but not encouraged. After that date, steel tanks must be coated on the inside and outside with an approved polyurethane.

Also, tanks now must have an access opening in the first compartment that is at least 20 inches in diameter. Other compartments must each have an access pipe of at least 4 inches in diameter with an airtight cap.

Douglas County ends delays of onsite inspection tracking

After several delays of deadlines, this year Douglas County must comply with the Wisconsin onsite inspection tracking rule passed in 2000.

In mid-March the county will mail the first set of notices to property owners telling them their systems must be inspected once every three years. This year notices will go to people in southern Douglas County. The central part of the county will be notified in 2020, and people in the northern section in 2021. Systems installed since July 1, 2000, have already been required to have a maintenance plan.

Inspections may be performed by a master or journeyman plumber or by certified inspectors or operators. If a system is failing, the property owner will have 12 months to fix or replace it unless there is an imminent threat to public health, reports the Superior Telegram in Superior.

The county is at the northwestern tip of Wisconsin, and it touches the southwestern end of Lake Superior.

Wisconsin septic pumper fined for illegal disposal

A septic pumper in Bloomer, Wisconsin, must pay $20,661 in fines and another $9,839 in court costs and fees after pleading guilty to improper disposal of sewage, failing to leave fields litter-free, improper recordkeeping and failing to properly treat the soil.

The state filed charges against Jonathan Bischel and Bischel’s Septic Service after an investigation that lasted several years, reports the Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire. Court records say Bischel bought an old gravel pit and illegally dumped sewage in it. Investigators from the Department of Natural Resources installed a GPS tracker on one of Bischel’s trucks, and it showed he disposed of wastewater at the gravel pit 35 times from Aug. 29, 2014, to Sept. 18, 2014.

State conservation wardens also found several pieces of litter, such as tampon sleeves and pieces of clothing, in sludge that Bischel spread on fields.

Bloomer is in central Wisconsin, about 100 miles east of Minneapolis.

Idaho county relaxes onsite rules

Blaine County, Idaho, commissioners are beginning the process to relax the county’s onsite rules in order to spur development.

The changes will address a continuing concern from developers who face a local rule requiring lots be at least 1 acre in size if a home will not be connected to municipal sewer lines. The land area restriction is intended to provide room for a drainfield, reports the Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum.

Kathy Grotto, the county’s land use deputy administrator, tells commissioners that she favored broad language to allow any type of wastewater system that regulatory agencies can approve. That would allow the use of new or different technologies, she says.

Blaine County is in the central part of the state and includes the ski resort area of Sun Valley.

Water-quality lawsuit continues in Massachusetts

A federal lawsuit about water quality at a Massachusetts resort may go forward, a federal judge ruled in January.

The Conservation Law Foundation sued the Wychmere Beach Club in August 2019 for what it says is an illegal wastewater discharge that harms Wychmere Harbor on the south coast of Cape Cod. The foundation filed a similar suit against the nearby Wequassett Resort and Golf Club, reports the Cape Cod Times of Hyannis.

At issue in the suit is the type of permit used for the system. The foundation argues the state permit does little to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering groundwater. It wants the Clean Water Act to apply because those rules have stricter limits on nitrogen compared to the state permit.

Attorneys for the beach club asked District Judge William Young to dismiss the lawsuit, saying their system was fully permitted. Young ruled against the motion.

Attorneys are negotiating in the lawsuit against the golf club.

The Conservation Law Foundation is a nonprofit group based in Boston and advocating about environmental issues in New England.


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