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Bill would require units to link to sewage systems

OLYMPIA – Trying to strike a balance between affordable housing and clean drinking water, the state Senate has voted to allow Spokane County to force mobile home parks – even those with working septic systems – to connect to sewers if they’re over the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.

“We want to take steps now to prevent a septic failure above our aquifer before it has a chance to pollute Spokane’s drinking supply,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, prime sponsor of SB 6868.

As things stand now, cities and counties cannot require mobile home parks on septic systems to connect to a sewer system unless local health officials say the septic system is failing.

Brown, D-Spokane, calls that a loophole. Apartment buildings, she said, are already required to hook up.

Republicans oppose any changes, saying it’s expensive and unfair to make people with working septic systems pay for sewers.

“This is affordable housing,” said Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards. County health officials easily can test systems to see whether they are leaking, she said.

Under the bill, legislators are “just automatically deciding that every septic tank is failing,” Schindler said. “It’s going to be the last straw, financially.”

Brown said she and other proponents are sensitive to the costs involved. Democrats added an amendment encouraging Spokane County to help pay.

Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, said the county’s affordable housing trust fund can be tapped for the projects. According to legislative testimony, the state Department of Ecology provides $5 million a year to Spokane County for septic tank elimination.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, scoffed at the county-help amendment, calling it “a letter to Santa Claus.”

He countered with an amendment, which failed, to require the county to foot the bill.

Lawmakers have repeatedly wrestled with the issue. In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill intended to shield local mobile home parks with working septic systems from mandatory sewer connection.

The new bill would reverse that.

Brown said the region’s unusual geology makes such protection critical. The Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer provides drinking water for the region’s 400,000 people, she said, and the ground over the aquifer is very porous. Pollution from failing septic systems can quickly leach into the water supply.

Studies suggest that about 60 percent of the pollution reaching the aquifer comes from failing septic systems, she said.

“It’s very clear that the places where the (sewer) connection is made, the aquifer water quality improves,” she said.

The bill passed the Senate on a party line vote, 32 to 16, and now goes to the House.