Faulty septic systems put Washington County's groundwater at risk, but solutions aren't affordable for many people who own them, a County Board member said last week.

Gary Kriesel said the county has a "significant number" of out-of-compliance septic systems that are becoming more evident this spring during inspections when owners decide to sell.

"As the economy recovers, more people are going to find out that maybe their septic systems are 50 years old," Kriesel said. "Chances are they're not going to pass the inspection and will have to be replaced."

Washington County has an estimated 18,250 septic systems, said Lowell Johnson, who manages the county's public health and environment division. Most of them are grouped in townships and some cities in the eastern portion of the county, outside established urban sewer districts.

"We try to make sure that everyone who has one of these takes care of it," Johnson said.

The county requires pumping of existing septic systems every three years, but if a sale isn't involved, "that doesn't necessarily include an inspection of the system," he said at last week's County Board meeting. Contractors are required to file reports with the county on the condition of the septic systems they pump.

A recent ordinance in Washington County requires inspections of septic systems older than five years before property is sold and before a building permit is issued to add a bedroom to a house. Because more properties now are being sold, Kriesel said, residents are finding out that upgrades could cost them thousands of dollars, and the problem falls disproportionately on lower-income residents.

Kriesel said the county needs to find money to help property owners resolve septic problems. Residents have raised concerns about leaking septic systems, and some are nothing more than bottomless cesspools that leak into groundwater, he said.

Replacing a septic system would cost between $10,000 and $15,000 on average, Johnson said.

Concern over protecting the county's groundwater has gathered urgency in recent years because of revelations that cities are drawing water from aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them.

Kriesel said he hoped the County Board would find sources of funding, possibly in the form of low-interest loans, for property owners to correct septic problems. Money could come from state grants, he said, or possibly the county's Land and Water Legacy fund, a voter-approved initiative to preserve open spaces and improve water quality.

Commissioner Fran Miron, whose district in the northern portion of Washington County includes several lakes, said he wants to know more about septic system problems near water bodies. He also wants a review of effects of municipal water use on aquifers.

Malfunctioning septic systems, Johnson said, bring serious health problems if they drain into water bodies. Numerous older septic systems could be failing to treat waste and should be replaced, and "people need to know that these are really important health decisions," he said.

Kriesel asked for a County Board workshop to explore solutions. Commissioners don't take formal action during workshops but look for background information to make decisions.