In Virginia, one city manager expressed concern about accepting a $24,000 state grant to implement a law requiring septic systems to be pumped every five years.
The money was to be used to help educate the public and set up a computerized system to track septic pumping. But the manager thought the notion that people should pump septic systems was “just silly.”
“I will not be a party to a project that defies common sense and forces people to pump out their septic tanks,” he told the local newspaper.
At that point, state officials had to step in. The town didn’t have to take the money, officials told him, but it did have to establish the septic system program. Pumping septic systems is more than just a good idea, they told him. It’s the law.
At least in Virginia, which is the only Bay jurisdiction with a law on the books that requires routine septic system maintenance.
The 1987 Chesapeake Bay Protection Act requires the 84 tidewater municipalities — basically those east of Interstate 95 — to enact ordinances requiring that all septic systems be pumped out at least once every five years. In addition, they must establish a tracking system to make sure the pumpouts occur, and provide public education materials to homeowners.
Septic systems are a particular concern in the tidewater area because the high water tables, and the often close proximity to waterways, make poorly maintained septic systems more likely to contaminate the water.
“Obviously in high water table soils, septic fields are prone to having problems,” said Mike Clower, director of the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department.
Still, more than a decade after the law went on the books, many municipalities are only now implementing the requirement. The reason, Clower said, is that the law contained many local government requirements — such as preservation area designations, stormwater regulation, land use planning, buffers and so on — that often took precedent.
“The localities have had their hands full with going through our laundry list of what they have to do,” Clower said. “Some of them jumped on the septic requirements, some of them didn’t. We’re going through them now with implementation review and trying to help them get started. Not all of them are doing it.”
Some local governments are reluctant to interfere with individual homeowners and their property, Clower said. “But the fact is, when a septic system fails, it affects far more than just that one person’s property,” he said. “You get it into the groundwater and into the streams. It’s far reaching.”
Right now CBLAD is developing regulations that would offer some flexibility to homeowners. Under the proposal, homeowners could be exempt from the five-year pumpout requirement if they install a device that would keep a septic tank from accepting wastes when it gets full.
The reason, Clower said, is that a cottage used only on weekends, or homes with certain septic system designs may not need to be pumped out as often.
Despite some reluctance by local governments, Clower said many homeowners have written letters supporting the program. Many — like the city manager — never knew they had to pump out septic tanks, or that they could pose a health or environmental threat. “When they’re not properly maintained, they poison the water plus they’re incredibly expensive to fix when they fail,” Clower said. “Who wants to go dig the thing up?”