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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

New homes waiting on sewer

Deborah Lusk and her husband were in the process of building their dream home near the shore of Lake Pend Oreille when their plans were backed up by an overworked sewer system.

“We had a builder lined up, plans drawn up,” Lusk said, speaking from her current home in Riverside, Calif.

The couple’s plans, like those of untold dozens of other property owners in the Sagle area, have been stymied by a recent moratorium on new home construction in the Southside Water and Sewer District. The ban was imposed April 21 because the district’s sewer system was nearing capacity.

Although Lusk’s husband has four years left until retirement from his firefighting job, the couple had hoped to finish their house this summer. Now, they don’t know when the ban will be lifted. They’ve been told it might be two months or it could be five years.

“We are really upset because this wasn’t disclosed, none of this was disclosed,” Lusk said.

The Southside Water and Sewer District serves just over 300 homes. About 30 others had received building permits before the ban was imposed, said Gary Wescott, chairman of the district. Owners of lots without homes are still required to pay regular fees to the sewer district, even though they are locked out of the system. About 200 undeveloped lots in the district have not yet been served, Wescott said.

Real estate agents in the area have stopped selling the lots, most of which are one acre and fetch between $30,000 and $60,000.

Plans are in the works to double the size of the system, Wescott said. But extensive state and federal permits are required because the project involves discharging treated wastewater into the Pend Oreille River during winter, when aquatic growth slows and is less likely to be harmed by an infusion of nutrients from the treated sewage.

Wescott declined to specify the number of property owners held up by the building ban. He said district officials believed the system could handle 400 homes.

The current system dumps treated wastewater on a nearby 27-acre hayfield. State officials allow only as much treated sewage to be dumped as can be sucked up by the growing plants. This prevents any wastewater from seeping into the aquifer and means that the wastewater must be stored during cold months.

A system to discharge into the river during the winter would cost about $867,000, or roughly half the cost of expanding the land-application system, according to a March memo from the Southside Water and Sewer District. The district would need to find at least 50 acres, Wescott said. With the current real estate boom in Bonner County, farmland is selling for at least $8,000 per acre.

“That’s pretty expensive to pour pee on,” Wescott said.

But discharging the treated waste into the river will require permits from Idaho, Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This could take at least two years, said John Tindall, an engineer with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

“This is quite a lengthy process,” Tindall said.

A permit to expand the land application of treated wastewater would require the approval of only state regulators and could be available in “a couple of months,” Tindall said. The state must certify the project to ensure protections are in place for human and aquatic life health.

More scrutiny is being placed on dischargers to the Pend Oreille River. Sandpoint and Dover – two communities just across the river from Sagle – also dump their treated sewage into the river, which flows into Washington, said Diane Williams, executive director of the Tri-State Water Quality Council, a nonprofit group that works to protect regional surface water quality. The building ban is just a symptom of North Idaho’s fast growth pains.

“The problem with Bonner County is we really don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle it,” Williams said.

A new management plan is being developed to ensure the protection of the Pend Oreille River, Williams said.

Sagle resident Len Golding was able to get around the building ban by installing septic systems on two lots he owns in the district. The systems cost $6,000 each but have allowed him to begin construction on homes for his brother and sister.

“I still have to pay the fees even though I can’t connect to the sewer system now,” Golding said. “It’s ridiculous.”

In addition, Golding was required to sign an agreement that he would abandon the septic systems once the sewer upgrades are completed. Golding agreed because he didn’t want to lose an entire building season.

“We didn’t have much choice,” he said.

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