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Washington Moves to Protect Puget Sound from Failing Septic Systems

March 29, 2006

On March 9, 2006, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed House Bill 1458, enacting new laws that require the twelve counties surrounding Puget Sound to: (1) identify “marine recovery areas” where failing septic systems threaten water quality; (2) locate and track those systems that threaten public health; and (3) work with system owners to make necessary repairs. House Bill 1458. The “Septics Bill”, as it was commonly called during the 2005-2006 legislative session, is a first step toward realizing the recently created Puget Sound Partnership’s public-private goal of solving environmental challenges in the Sound by 2020. The State’s 2006 supplemental budget contains fifty-six million dollars for Puget Sound recovery, including six and a half million dollars in grants and loans to help homeowners cover costs incurred repairing failing septic systems.

More than 10,000 streams and rivers drain into Puget Sound, a marine estuary surrounded by 2,500 miles of shoreline. Puget Sound Partnership. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nationwide ten to twenty percent of septic systems, also known as on-site sewage systems (OSSs), fail each year. “Local Government Loan Programs for On-Site Septic System Repair and Replacement using the Washington State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund.” According the to Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology), Washington State has over 800,000 on-site septic systems, many installed before the state adopted minimum standards in 1974. Id. Most local health districts who have surveyed septic systems have found that the age of a septic system is often the most significant contributor to failures. Id. “Other common factors include poor soils, obsolete design or construction, and poor operation and maintenance.” Id.

In Washington, on-site sewage disposal is managed at the local level with guidance and support from the state. Washington State Board of Health regulations (Chapter 246-272 WAC) set statewide standards for location, design, installation, operation, maintenance, and monitoring of septic systems. Local boards of health implement these regulations. WAC 246-272-00501, -02001. The State Department of Licensing carries out a program to license system designers and certify local health board staff. RCW 18.210. As further discussed below, the Washington Department of Ecology’s Water Quality Program has administered financial assistance for septic system repairs and upgrades.

The new septics law takes effect on June 7, 2006. It directs county health officials in Clallam, Island, Kitsap, Jefferson, Mason, San Juan, Seattle-King, Skagit, Snohomish, Tacoma-Pierce, Thurston, and Whatcom counties to find and fix failing septic systems by 2012. It specifically directs officials in those counties to undertake the following actions:

  • Designate “marine recovery areas” of special concern to shellfish growing, for low-dissolved oxygen or high fecal coliform, or where nitrogen has been identified as a contaminant of concern,
  • Create certification programs to locate and track on-site sewage disposal systems that threaten public health and to ensure that such systems are properly functioning,
  • Inventory existing on-site sewage disposal systems,
  • Identify and repair failing systems,
  • Develop data bases capable of sharing information regarding on-site sewage disposal systems, and
  • Monitor results to demonstrate programs are working and that public health and the environment are protected.

By July 1, 2007, and thereafter, the local health officers in the designated counties shall each develop and approve an on-site sewage disposal system program implementation plan that will guide the local health jurisdiction in the development and management of all on-site sewage disposal systems within each county’s marine areas of special concern.

The new law requires the Department of Ecology to review each county’s on-site sewage disposal system program implementation plan to ensure that all the elements of the plan, including designating any marine area of special concern, have been addressed. It further requires Ecology to enter into a contract with each county subject to the law to implement the approved on-site sewage disposal system program and to develop or enhance the data management system the law requires with funds the Legislature appropriated to Ecology for those purposes. The contracts between Ecology and each county shall require the local health jurisdiction to meet the following minimum requirements within any marine area of special concern:

  1. Show progressive improvement in finding failing systems;
  2. Show progressive improvement in working with on-site sewage disposal system owners to make needed system repairs;
  3. Actively undertake steps to find previously unknown on-site sewage disposal systems and ensure that they are inspected and repaired if necessary;
  4. Show progressive improvement in the percentage of on-site sewage disposal systems that are included in an electronic data system; and
  5. Of those on-site sewage disposal systems in the electronic data system, show progressive improvement in the percentage requiring inspections.

The contracts must also include provisions for state assistance in updating the county plan.

The Washington State Legislature established a Water Quality Account in 1986. Chapter 70.146 RCW. The Account’s purpose is to provide local governments, tribes, and state agencies with technical and financial assistance to protect and improve water quality in the state. Most of the funds in the account are passed to local government through the Centennial Clean Water Fund grant and loan program. Many Washington counties have used the Washington State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund’s (SRF) low-interest loan program to create local loan programs to help residents repair and upgrade failing septic systems. “Local Government Loan Programs for On-Site Septic System Repair and Replacement using the Washington State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund.” Most local loan programs are administered by local health officers through Ecology’s Water Quality Financial Assistance Program. Id. Building on this history, the 2006 supplemental budget supported the new septics law by including five million dollars for loans from the SRF and one and a half million dollars for grants in the Centennial Clean Water Fund.

The Septics Bill had diverse support from the environmental and business communities and passed with strong bi-partisan support in both the House and the Senate. At a March 23, 2006, meeting with Washington state environmental lawyers, representatives from the Association of Washington Business (AWB) and the Washington Environmental Council (WEC) spoke in favor of the bill. Grant Nelson, the AWB’s Governmental Affairs Director for Environmental Policy called this “a good bill for the environment and a good bill for the economy.” The bill was also one of the WEC’s four “priority” bills for the 2005-2006 legislative session. While the WEC argued in 20005 that any new septics law should cover both new and existing systems, it was willing to compromise this year to pass a bill that Mo McBroom, WEC Policy Director called “a baby step” toward better septic regulation and improved water quality in Puget Sound. Proponents of excluding new septic systems argued that those systems are better designed, are not failing, and are not the problem that the law is designed to address. Another concern relates to the bill’s potential costs. Interested parties will be watching to see whether the loan and grant program places a significant strain on the State’s Centennial Clean Water Fund.

The new law is anticipated to particularly benefit shellfish growers. Shellfish growing is a “$77+ million per year industry which anchors the economics of many rural Washington communities.” “Local Government Loan Programs for On-Site Septic System Repair and Replacement using the Washington State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund.” Current law requires counties to form shellfish protection districts in areas posted off-limits to shellfish harvesting because of pollution but doesn’t require protective action. “‘Stellar’ Session for Environment.” Saying that “the septic issue is one we’ve been working for years”, one shellfish grower praised the new law as taking septic system enforcement “beyond a paper exercise.” Id.

Contact Jeff Kray for more information.

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