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Idaho Senate rejects rule for septic systems

Broadsword (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
Broadsword (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

Tougher regulation crafted to protect water

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 wastewater 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 DEQ didn’t prove that septic systems with more water flowing into them have a greater risk of failure.

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 DEQ developed the rule after an extensive process that included public comment before presenting it 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.

As part of the process, a statewide wastewater generation study was conducted that examined 2,800 homes, 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 exceeds 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, chances are higher that wastewater won’t be treated properly and could contaminate surface water and groundwater.

An example, he said, was when the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer began showing contamination in the 1970s largely because of septic systems over the aquifer. Cities over the aquifer moved to central sewer systems, and the aquifer’s water quality improved and remained high even through the region’s substantial growth.

Peck said it’s rare that drain field requirements render a lot unbuildable, a prospect raised by some senators in debate Tuesday.

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.

While the flap over Eaton “didn’t even surface up north,” Broadsword said she did hear some constituents’ concerns about the rule. “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 against the rule. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said health officials should educate people about how to better maintain their septic systems.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, 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.

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.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or For more news from Boise go to

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