Groundwater is at risk as more systems show their age. The housing recovery is leading to more inspections.
Mounting concern over leaking and unsafe septic systems in Washington County could lead to government financial incentives for property owners to make repairs. But that will depend on possible state grants and other sources of revenue.
Thousands of property owners have outdated septic systems — many out of compliance — and some residences even have cesspools, which are tanks with no bottoms and are hazardous to groundwater.
Members of the County Board last week said they wanted to place more emphasis on addressing failing septic systems to protect groundwater from contamination. They also said various state and local agencies need to work together more aggressively to make sure supplies of drinking water remain safe and in abundance for the county’s growing population.
“I just personally think there hasn’t been enough urgency attached to this,” Commissioner Gary Kriesel said. “I don’t want to see anybody spending the next 10 years studying a problem.”
The county’s septic problem has become more apparent this spring as the economy has improved and more houses are listed for sale.
When a house sells, “we get a compliance inspection,” said Amanda Strommer, a program manager in the county’s public health and environment division. The county is discovering that many septic systems never were inspected, and cesspools are especially worrisome because “those are an imminent threat,” she said during the County Board work session.
About 48,000 Washington County residents use septic systems, said Lowell Johnson, director of the division. That’s the equivalent of 3.7 million gallons of wastewater per day, he said, superseding the 3.5 million gallons a day treated at the St. Croix River wastewater plant.
“If you look at it collectively, it’s like a large city,” Johnson said of the septic systems.
The county contracts with 17 cities for septic inspection and handles all township inspections as well. Only Stillwater and Dellwood do their own inspections, he said.
Kriesel said he’s heard enough from residents to know the problem is possibly worse than anybody realized.
“There are a lot of homes, if their septic systems are inspected, they’re not going to be in compliance,” said Kriesel, who represents Stillwater and other cities south to Afton. “There’s no question, those septic systems down in the Lower Valley are ancient.”
Commissioner Fran Miron, formerly Hugo’s mayor, said his district in the north end of the county has problems, too. Faulty septic systems can be found even at relatively new houses, he said.
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.
Kriesel said the county needs to find money to help property owners resolve septic problems because of the public health issue. Replacing a septic system would cost between $10,000 and $15,000 on average, Johnson said.
Ideas floated at the work session included possible property tax “paybacks,” state grants, low-interest loans and incentives from the county’s Land and Water Legacy fund, a voter-approved initiative to preserve open spaces and improve water quality.
Commissioners don’t take formal action at workshops.