Action needed on risky septic systems

On-site septic systems are far too commonplace in the urban neighborhoods of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

The latest tally by the LOTT Clean Water Alliance revealed 16,744 properties either in the three cities or in their urban growth areas — served by on-site septic systems.

Some of these small-scale sewage treatment systems, especially those that are older and poorly maintained, are ticking time bombs. When they stop working properly, they can pollute groundwater, streams, lakes and Puget Sound.

Nearly one-third of the septic systems identified by LOTT are considered to be at a high risk of failing. That’s not a very comforting statistic for a community that relies on groundwater for its drinking water supplies.

Most would agree that the public health of the community would be best served by hooking those properties up to the regional sewer system. This would assure effective treatment of the wastewater at one of the LOTT plants, which are state-of-the-art operations.

But it’s not that simple.

For one thing, the cost of converting from septic system to sewer can be a real shock to a homeowner. On average, it is about $40,000 per parcel to convert.

That helps explain why the three-city region is averaging only about 10 conversions per year. At that rate, it will be more than 500 years before all the high-risk on-site systems would be replaced.

LOTT and city officials have been struggling with this issue for years. Conversions also are limited by current regulations that only require a homeowner to take action when their system fails.

The community needs a more proactive approach. Neighborhoods need more incentives to convert to the regional sewer system. The cities must concentrate on the urban neighborhoods served by aging systems in environmentally sensitive areas. Other cities should follow Olympia’s lead and dedicate city employees to administer septic-to-sewer conversion programs.

There have been a few success stories in recent years. For instance, 128 homes in the Woodland Creek Estates and Covington Place subdivisions completed a successful conversion that has reduced bacterial contamination of Woodland Creek and Henderson Inlet.

The project benefited from $5.7 million in state grants and loans that eased some of the sticker shock for homeowners. The city of Lacey and LOTT provided technical and financial assistance that helped, too.

Work also is underway on a septic-to-sewer project in Tanglewilde, a high-density neighborhood in Lacey’s urban growth area.

As the cities and LOTT continue to search for creative ways to encourage more sewer hookups, homeowners have a responsibility to ensure their on-site septic systems are inspected, maintained or, if necessary, repaired on a regular basis.

These mini-sewage-treatment-plants are often out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind.