BOISE - At the urging of North Idaho senators, the state Senate voted Tuesday to reject a Department of Environmental Quality rule to stiffen requirements for new septic systems to protect Idaho waters against contamination.
“None of us wish to see our lakes and waters degraded,” Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, told the Senate. “That’s not the point here. … We’re sending a message to the agency.”
Broadsword said the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t adequately prove to lawmakers that septic systems with more water flowing into them have a greater risk of failure. “It’s debatable,” she said. “By and large, there was no scientific proof that the failures of sewage systems in Idaho were in any way tied to increased flows.”
Opponents disagreed. “When these systems start failing, it’s going to affect our water quality and it’s going to affect our tourism - it’s going to affect all sorts of things,” Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, told the Senate.
The state DEQ developed the rule after an extensive negotiated rule-making process that included public comment, and then it was approved 6-1 by the DEQ’s board before being presented to the Legislature for review. The rule was developed after several years of debate, beginning with a measure originally proposed by the Panhandle Health District in North Idaho.
As part of the process, a statewide wastewater generation study was conducted that examined 2,800 homes statewide, said Dale Peck, environmental response and technology director for the Panhandle Health District. The results of the study, presented both to the DEQ board and the Legislature, showed that one in seven homes currently exceed the design requirements for a drain field, where sewage is deposited. The rules were developed to move to a standard where just one in 20, or 5 percent, would exceed the design standard.
When the standards are exceeded, Peck said, “The consequence is that we have a higher chance that wastewater is not being properly treated, and thereby has greater potential of negatively impacting surface water and groundwater.”
An example, he said, was when the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer began showing contamination in the 1970s largely due to septic systems over the aquifer. Cities over the aquifer moved to central sewer systems, the water quality in the aquifer improved, and it’s stayed high even through substantial growth in the region.
Peck said it’s rare that drain field requirements render a lot unbuildable, a prospect raised by some senators in the debate Tuesday. If a lot is small, alternative designs still could make the system work under the proposed stricter rule, Peck said.
The rule led to something of a scandal in January when John Eaton, a lobbyist for the Idaho Association of Realtors, withdrew a promised campaign contribution to Joan Cloonan, a DEQ board member and GOP legislative candidate in Boise, after she voted for the rule - which his group opposed. State officials said no laws had been violated.
Broadsword told The Spokesman-Review, “The flap over John Eaton didn’t even surface up north.” She said, “I didn’t really hear from the Realtors in my area, I heard from contractors, I heard from homeowners, and they were concerned about having to put in larger systems.”
Several North Idaho senators spoke out for rejecting the rule. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said health officials should educate people about how to better maintain their septic systems. “That would be a proactive thing they could do,” he said.
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “Right now there is not an agreement on the problem or the resolution to the problem.” He said all involved should get together and agree on solutions. “No one would argue with protecting our water, especially those of us who live up near those beautiful waters.”
The measure, SCR 103, passed the Senate on a 27-7 vote; the seven “no” votes included six Democratic senators plus Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow. It now moves to the House, where majority support would grant it final passage.
The Panhandle Health District originally proposed the new rule just for North Idaho, but the Legislature rejected the rule in 2007, calling for a statewide rule instead. That launched the DEQ’s negotiated rule-making process and the statewide wastewater study.
Peck said Panhandle Health will continue to work to “protect public health and the waters of the state. … It’s been a long process - we’ve been at this for going on four years now.”