The Conservation Beat
3:19 pm
Mon March 5, 2012

Shoring Up Septic Systems in Bernalillo County

The Bernalillo County Commission will consider a proposal to require inspections of aging septic systems next week.  The commission scrapped one ordinance last year that would have required all older systems to be replaced by 2015. Advocates of the new measure say it’s a reasonable compromise.  But opponents say it’s just unfair.  KUNM’s Sidsel Overgaard reports.

Find a scedule of public meetings on this issue here.

The Bernalillo County Commission will consider a proposal to require inspections of aging septic systems next week.  The commission scrapped one ordinance last year that would have required all older systems to be replaced by 2015. Advocates of the new measure say it’s a reasonable compromise.  But opponents say it’s just unfair.  KUNM’s Sidsel Overgaard reports.

 A little more than a decade ago, Bruce Thompson with UNM’s Water Resources Program found that contaminants from leaky septic systems were polluting the groundwater in Bernalillo County.

“They weren’t in exceedance f groundwater standards, but they were high enough that there’s unambiguous evidence of contamination from on-site wastewater systems.”

In fact, septic systems are now considered the number one source of groundwater pollution in the county.   And that’s why Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins says she’s introduced a measure to require septic systems 30 years and older to be inspected every five years.

“Our groundwater is a common resource”

Hart-Stebbins says there may not be any septic systems in her district.

“We all depend on the groundwater in Bernalillo Country. The aquifer serves everyone who lives on the west side of the mountains and if there is a contamination going on in the foothills that eventually is going to reach pour aquifer.”

The foothills, the East Mountains places that aren’t on municipal sewage systems that’s where you’ll find the majority of septic tanks in the County and, not surprisingly, the most opposition to this measure. At a recent public meeting some residents, like George Greer, said it’s unfair that the ordinance only applies to lots ¾ of an acre or smaller an attempt to deal with more heavily populated areas:

“Based on what their saying up here, me having  ¾ of an acre lot, I’m going to be the only person in my neighborhood who will have their system inspected and there are houses that have been there since the 1940s and 50s.”

Vicky Farrar says in her neighborhood she’s one of the few that wouldn’t be affected.

“But we have neighbors who are on half acre lots who will be directly impacted and they don’t have the money to do this.”

Officials say inspections will cost homeowners about $300 dollars.  And there IS a program available to help low-income residents pay for that part. The bigger concern is what happens if a system is deemed failing.  Then, a homeowner might be looking at 30 thousand dollars to replace it.

“And the idea that some of the guys have a financial gain to be made…” Farrar is referring to the inspectors, many of whom are also septic system installers. “They’re going to get 20-30 thousand dollars per septic system if they fail it. So it’s just squirrely.”

Her husband, Ron Farrar, adds “Some of these houses don’t have permits and the county can’t even find them. Yes, so they’re not going to be subject to any of this and they’re the ones that probably have the septics that are failing.”

It’s a valid point.  There are an estimated 2,000 unpermitted septic systems in the county almost the same number of permitted systems that would be subject to inspection in the next 20 years. County officials say they DO plan to start wrangling those outliers this summer. Meanwhile, County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who represents the East Mountains, says he’d like to defer a vote until August.

“I’m still kind of on the fence about it. I have concerns about the procedural issues. I have real concerns about the financial impact that this might have on the East Mountains. People lost money on their properties. They don’t have the equity to pay for a new system. There’s not going to be a new system installed no matter how many times we fine them.”

Commissioner Michael Weiner also favors a deferral.  Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham does not but would like to see language offering some kind of financial help to pay for new systems.  County staffers say they’re looking into options now.

Meanwhile, County environmental health manager George Schroeder, who drafted the proposal, says he can understand peoples’ concerns about cost but there’s something else.

“I’m also hearing some debate over the technical merits of this or whether or not there’s evidence of groundwater pollution.” To that, he says, the answer is unequivocal. "There is evidence of groundwater pollution, throughout the Bernalillo County. I wouldn’t have written this if I didn’t think there was.”

It’s just a question of who is going to pay for it.  And when.