County tries new avenues for septic compliance

Getting people to inspect their septic systems has been an ongoing battle for Island County.

And it’s one that the law doesn’t necessarily incentivize.

When the county first implemented the law in 2009, it could have cost a homeowner around $250 for an inspection, $62 to submit the results and up to $20,000 in repairs or replacement if problems were discovered.

On the other hand, if the county found out a resident is non-compliant, they are only issued a $25 fine. With the county’s limited staff and resources, enforcement has been a problem, according to Keith Higman, the county’s public health director.

“The system hasn’t created a great incentive for compliance,” Higman said.

Today, things are a little different.

The $62 fee was removed in recent years and the program has continued through Clean Water Utility funding.

In addition, the county now has access to federal rebates, grants and loans to assist — and incentivize — homeowners to take a real look at their septic systems.

In efforts to get the word out, a community meeting was recently held at the Captain Whidbey Inn on Central Whidbey focusing on the Penn Cove watershed to encourage people to both think environmentally and comply with the law. The county served Penn Cove mussels, in part to drive home the point that clean water is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

“We hoped people would make that connection,” said Ruth Piccone, Island County environmental health specialist.

Identified as one of the county’s high risk watersheds, Penn Cove is a body of water with low dissolved oxygen making it sensitive to pollution, Piccone said.

This hyper-focus on Penn Cove was made possible by a $60,000 area-specific federal grant applied for by Higman’s staff and awarded to high-risk watersheds. Due to the sensitivity of Penn Cove and its 1,177 septic systems, the money is intended to pay for up to $300 of a resident’s inspection.

“It’s limited and we want people to take advantage,” Piccone said. “The money will run out.”

In addition to the Penn Cove-specific money, the county also has access to grants and loans county-wide to assist residents in caring for their septic systems.

The county has more than 27,000 known septic systems with a 21 percent compliance rate, Piccone said. The endangered Penn Cove watershed has only 16 percent compliance.

South Holmes Harbor and Maxwelton watersheds are also high-risk areas, although the county has yet to gather hard compliance numbers on them.

While the county has previously focused on overall compliance, they are taking a step back from that and simply trying to get people to see what’s going on with their systems.

“Some have never even been looked at,” Piccone said. “The value is making sure each septic gets an inspection. We want them to open the lid and have a look.”

One reason people might be hesitant to inspect is because a big, expensive problem might be found.

However, at this point the county is not looking to penalize people for any problems but simply work with them on solutions, Piccone said.

Another obstacle to inspections has been the county’s lack of staffing and funding to send some 27,000 letters to septic owners and remind them to inspect, according to Higman.

“The compliance rate is low because if people aren’t reminded of what they’re supposed to be doing, they just won’t do it,” Higman said.

The septic inspection requirement was adopted into state law in 2005, a county ordinance was created by 2007 with a 2009 implementation date.

Higman said that in 2005 there seemed to be a recognition that a “one size fits all” approach would not work for many counties.

Additional legislative pressure was placed on the 12 Puget Sound counties where the highest risk of contamination exists, although their approach was left to local decision makers.

Given its limited resources, Higman said the county opted for a “risk-based” approach to septic compliance, focusing on the areas with the highest contamination potential. Island County modeled its program after Thurston County and the approach is not uncommon state-wide.

The county encourages homeowners to regularly inspect their septic systems. The cost to a homeowner varies depending on the type of septic system and the home’s proximity to environmentally sensitive land. Inspections should take place between one and three years and in certain cases, the homeowner may attend a county class and learn to inspect their own system.

Inspections can cost anywhere from $120 to $350 for which assistance is available.

Moving forward, Higman said the framework for compliance will likely change and evolve with time and public input.

“Until we get to a place when we truly understand the operations of septic systems in our area, it’s gonna be hard to develop an effective system,” Higman said.