From The Septic System Owner's Manual
A Tale of Two Sewers
They paid special attention to the part in the introduction called “Remember It’s Your Project,” which told them that it’s up to the community to decide what it wants, and it can be disastrous if it’s all left up to the consultants. After all, you wouldn’t buy a car without figuring out what you really needed. The article also pointed out that it was essential to look at funding sources and work with them as the community decided what they wanted the system to do.
The community felt empowered by the article and the other things they learned. They decided they wanted the smallest feasible system, keeping as many individual systems as possible, and upgrading only those that were malfunctioning. Initially engineers had proposed a large collection and treatment system with every house in the community connected, but after looking at the alternatives, homeowners decided that what they really needed to do was to connect only those houses right next to the waters of the bay. They looked at many systems that had been installed in other counties and states. They also decided that they didn’t want raw sewage pumped along the edge of the bay, so they specified that they wanted a system that pumped treated effluent from the septic tanks to a drainfield a safe distance from their bay. This is called a septic tank effluent pumping system (STEP system). One of the big advantages of a STEP system was that residents would not all be forced to hook up at once. It could be done incrementally. They set about working with the county to hire an engineer.
The town by the river didn’t get to hire an engineer. The small group of people who started the project had already done so, and the one they had hired had run up close to a million dollars in engineering fees. Politically connected, the group got the county to impose a building moratorium so that not only would the project qualify for more federal and state money, but many homeowners would find it nearly impossible to upgrade, refinance, or sell their homes unless they went along with the plan.
The plan itself was horrendous not just the costs. When the residents saw it, many were aghast. All the houses, businesses, and the vacant lots would be on a collection system that fed raw sewage into grinder pumps spread about town, and then pumped it down a narrow scenic roadway in a large pressure sewer to the beautiful meadow on the privately owned ranch previously mentioned. At the meeting to present the plan, some citizens asked what would happen during a power failure or a flood, and the engineer said that trucks with generators on them would go out to keep the pumps running. Some residents pointed out that the trucks would have had to drive though four feet of water in the last flood.
Some other people asked about how the project was getting funded. The county supervisor told everyone that the plan was in place and “… the train is leaving the station”. Unfortunately, planning had taken so long that the railroad tracks no longer led to government funding dollars, but directly to the pockets of the town’s homeowners and renters. Because of the way the county had locked itself into the funding, the option of a local community district wouldn’t work. The only thing that the residents could do was try and change the rigged vote, and go after all the loose ends in the plan.
Meanwhile, the bayside community was working with their plan. They went through every expense of the project. They decided they would allow homeowners to hire their own qualified installer to make repairs to their septic tanks and make the hookups. Not only did this allow the homeowners to get competitive prices, but since the engineers were only responsible for the specifications of the system, and not the installation, it saved tens of thousands of dollars in survey expenses, engineering drawings, and site supervision. The STEP system would consist of a pipeline running along the shoreline, collecting the treated effluent from septic tanks on lots that were too close to the water, and pumping it to a safe disposal site on a ranch. Out of some 70 houses along the bay, it turned out that they only needed to connect to 20, with the possibility of expanding the system to 38 later on. Many houses could use their existing septic tanks. Some of the other parts of the community would upgrade their septic tanks and drainfields, but most people’s systems were just fine.
Better yet was the cost. By the time that they had worked out the most efficient contract, the entire engineering costs would be $500,000, and the total cost of the system would be $1.2 million. This compared to $25 million estimated before homeowners took over the project. Even better, they worked with their local supervisor and came up with grant funding for most of the project. As this is written, they’ll be breaking ground on the project next year.
Back on the river, the angry citizens found all sorts of shenanigans with the funding, and the county was tying itself up in knots trying to figure out a way to hammer the project into something that might qualify for funding. The people who owned the ranch had repeatedly said that they were not going to allow their property to be used as a disposal site. The county, on recommendations from the engineers, assumed they could condemn the land, but when push came to shove, it wasn’t going to cost the couple of hundred thousand dollars the engineers and planners had assumed, but millions.
The building ban that the regulators put in place is still stopping many homeowners from doing anything with their property. There is still no survey of the community septic tanks to see how many are actually malfunctioning. There has still been no DNA testing to determine if pollution is human or animal in origin. Incidentally, the river meets standards at the town, in spite of a tributary that is a major source of contamination several miles upstream. And now the community is facing millions of dollars of additional costs, and a plan is afoot to pump all the sewage upstream to a bigger town’s treatment plant a desperate measure. In fact, this plant has consistently failed to meet water quality standards during periods of high flow. The engineering fees are now over a million, and still rising.
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