Larger septic systems are needed across North Idaho to prevent the further fouling of surface and groundwater, according to a unanimous vote Thursday by the Panhandle Health District Board of Health.
The proposal calls for roughly doubling the size of new septic systems, but the plan first must be approved by the Idaho Legislature. Representatives from the building industry and several Republican legislators attending Thursday’s meeting expressed skepticism of the idea, which they worry could add too much expense to new homes.
Public health experts, however, said Idaho’s standards are among the weakest in the nation. And with many of North Idaho’s best building spots already taken, developers are turning their attention to steep slopes and places where thin soils aren’t able to handle human waste.
Currently, the health district requires septic systems to handle 150 gallons of wastewater per day for a one-bedroom house and 50 gallons for each additional bedroom. Under the proposal, new septic system drain fields would have to be large enough to handle at least 400 gallons per day for a house with three or fewer bedrooms. Larger drain fields would be required for houses with more bedrooms.
George Miles, an engineer whose firm, Advanced Wastewater Engineering, designs septic systems, said failures are relatively common in North Idaho because too many drain fields are too small to handle the waste. He said failures often go unnoticed – they simply overload the soil with waste, which eventually oozes into lakes and groundwater.
“We’re bottom of the rung, bottom of the barrel,” Miles said of the current standards. “We have to do something.”
Making drain fields larger is a minor cost for a new home, Miles said. But he admitted the costs could be huge if the homes are built on parcels too small or steep to handle a bigger drain field. This would require purchasing additional land.
North Idaho has 14 percent of the state’s population but issues 23 percent of the state’s permits for septic systems, according to data presented to the health board Thursday. The Panhandle also has a third of the state’s surface water.
The relative abundance of water in the north prompted Idaho State Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, to suggest tighter standards might be a better idea for the state’s drier regions.
“That water in southern Idaho that’s in such short supply is probably more valuable to southern Idahoans than it is here,” Goedde said, adding that the evidence presented Thursday didn’t convince him a problem exists. “I’m concerned about Panhandle Health paying for junk science.”
The comment prompted a challenge from Diane Williams of the Tri-State Water Quality Council. “The state is really not funding water quality monitoring well,” Williams said. “If folks want to see science, then they need to fund that science.”
Numerous studies have been conducted that show problems with decreasing water quality on Lake Pend Oreille in areas around homes, Williams said. The nutrients leaching into the lake and groundwater from undersized septic systems are also contributing to recent growth spikes in algae and Eurasian water milfoil.
“There is absolute degradation in all the developed areas,” Williams said.
In determining the proposed 400-gallon minimum, Panhandle Health District staff studied standards in other states and looked at the amount of water used in winter by 7,000 homes in Sandpoint, Rathdrum, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls. The study focused on winter consumption to avoid counting the large amounts of water that ends up on lawns and gardens, rather than being flushed down toilets and drains.
Roughly half of the 7,000 homes have septic systems too small to process the wastewater, said Dale Peck, the health district’s environmental response and technology director.
Despite the uncertain future faced by the proposal in the Idaho Statehouse, board member Dr. Richard McLandress pushed for passage of the more stringent requirements.
“We signed up for this job to be leaders in public health issues,” McLandress said, adding later, “We have more than ample data.”
A formal public hearing on the proposal is expected to be held Oct. 10. The health board will meet later in October to give final consideration, including deciding whether to submit the changes for legislative approval or wait another year in hopes of reaching additional consensus.