In this month's regulations update, a historic Washington home's sewage was found to be emptying directly into a protected salmon stream, and a California resident fights a 10-year-long moratorium on septics


The park district on Vashon Island, directly across Puget Sound from Seattle, Washington, has discovered that an historic home it has rented out to vacationers for the past nine years has no sanitation system. The problem surfaced when the lodge manager realized he never received a notice saying a septic tank needed pumping. The manager poked around and called in a wastewater professional, and they found sewage from the home surfacing 10 feet from the mouth of Shinglemill Creek, a protected salmon stream in what is regarded as one of the area’s most ecologically rich sanctuaries.

It will cost the park district an estimated $40,000 to install an onsite system. Park district commissioners did not commit to repairs at their meeting in mid-April. Rentals have been cancelled, and the park district staff is looking into the possibility of grants and an insurance claim to cover costs. After it was given the home in 2008, the district spent $179,000 on renovations, but the wastewater system was apparently overlooked.

Saving shellfish beds in Puget Sound

Thurston County and Lynden, Washington, are at opposite ends of Puget Sound, and in the last month both took action on wastewater contamination in different ways.

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Lynden lies about 100 miles north of Seattle, 3 miles from the Canadian border, and several miles inland from the sound, but the Nooksack River that drains the area flows into Portage Bay where the Lumi Nation has about 800 acres of shellfish beds. As part of the work to reduce fecal contamination in the bay, the city is waiving the $6,682 fee for homeowners who want to disconnect their onsite wastewater systems and join Lynden’s sewer system. Although the city is waiving the fee, homeowners will still bear the cost of connecting to sewer mains.

For about six months each year, fecal contamination prevents the tribe from using their beds for any commercial, ceremonial or subsistence fishing. Lumi Chairman Timothy Ballew II voiced support for the city’s program. The tribe has also formed a partnership agreement with seven area farmers to keep manure out of the bay and to compensate shellfish users for any loss resulting from fecal pollution.

News reports said only 20 percent of sites monitored in Whatcom County, which contains Lynden, meet standards for bacterial pollution.

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In Thurston County, county commissioners voted 3-0 in April to repeal a $10 fee that applied to about 42,000 septic system owners and was part of the county plan to monitor its septic systems. Monitoring and managing onsite systems is now required of Washington counties under state law.

The fee was approved 2-1 in December with support from two now-retired Democratic members of the County Commission.

More than 20 people testified at a public hearing about repealing the fee. Supporters of the fee said $10 is a bargain price for protecting the sound’s fragile waters. Opponents said they are capable of monitoring their own onsite system and already pay for maintenance.

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Citizen challenges septic system ban in California community

One resident tried but failed to break a decade-long septic system moratorium in a California community.

The Quail Valley community is near Menifee, about 64 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Resident Frank Barcelo sought a permit for a subsurface-discharge system, saying he had a right to provide for a future home. An official of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board said Barcelo presented no proof of his claimed right. The board denied Barcelo’s request.

Quail Valley covers about 1 square mile and has about 500 homes. Many septic systems in the community failed following heavy rains in 2004 and 2005. Officials enacted a temporary moratorium and made it permanent in 2007.

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The nonprofit group Inland Empire Waterkeeper opposed Barcelo’s request, saying it would encourage other property owners to challenge the moratorium and saying that the conditions leading to the widespread septic failures have not changed. The solution is to extend sewer service to Quail Valley, said the group’s attorney. But that could take years.

New Jersey Legislature opposes more onsite systems in Highlands

By a 4-1 vote on May 1, the New Jersey Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee passed a resolution opposing a regulation that would increase the density of onsite systems in a rural region of New Jersey. The state Assembly passed an identical resolution in December.

The region in question is called the Highlands, and it is an expanse of woods, lakes and rolling hills in the central and northern part of the state. What the proposed regulation would do is allow more septic tanks per acre of land. Environmentalists objected, saying septic systems are a primary source of nitrate pollution. Residents of the Highlands have cited state regulations as an impediment to development, and state Department of Environmental Protection officials defend the regulation, saying it protects water quality while allowing minimal growth.

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Legislators say the proposed regulation violates the intent of a 13-year-old law to preserve and protect hundreds of thousands of acres in the Highlands. The Legislature’s resolution gives the Commissioner of Environmental Protection 30 days to withdraw or modify the regulation. If the commissioner does not, the Legislature may pass another resolution to invalidate it.

Minnesota Amish community fights onsite system requirements

A group of Amish from Fillmore County in the southeastern corner of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in April as part of a years-long battle against regulations that require them to install onsite wastewater systems or holding tanks.

For the Amish it is a matter of religious choice, and they say they reuse graywater for watering their gardens.

“If we take a step in the wrong direction and teach our children and grandchildren, and lead them in that direction, we will have to answer for it at the day of judgement. We are asking in the name of our Lord to be exempt and forgiven for this oppression that is being laid on us,” says one letter sent by 105 members of the community to the state about three years ago.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — a defendant in the lawsuit along with Fillmore County — says the geology beneath the Amish homes is karst, and those eroded limestone structures easily transport contaminants to groundwater. News reports quoted Fillmore County attorney Brett Corson as saying several other cases have been decided in favor of the county.

Amish in Ohio have made similar objections to wastewater regulations in that state, but those cases were either settled with a compromise or decided in favor of state and local government.

New York water suppliers must test for contaminants

All water suppliers in New York will be required to test for at least three unregulated contaminants under a provision in the state’s new budget.

The contaminants have all been found in Long Island’s aquifers. They are: 1,4-dioxane; perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA; and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. A 12-member water-quality council, also established by the budget, will recommend whether other contaminants should be added to the list for testing and whether the state should set standards separate from those in federal regulations.

All water providers, public or private, must test if they have at least five year-round connections or regularly serve at least 25 residents. State officials said this is the first regulation in the nation to require almost all water suppliers to test for contamination. 

Wisconsin may eliminate fund that helps low-income citizens replace septics

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed two-year budget would eliminate a fund that provides financial assistance for low-income citizens to replace aging septic systems shown to be contaminating groundwater or drinking water.

People making up to $32,000 annually can apply to the Wisconsin Fund for grants for the work. In 2016, the fund paid about $2.3 million to 654 property owners. A portion of county septic system permit fees is sent to the state to fund the program.


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