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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Our View: Vote against septic rule endangers public, waters

It’s as clear as water. Idaho lawmakers aren’t interested in bringing the state’s rules for septic systems more in line with the rest of the nation.

That means that the Panhandle Health District will probably have to turn its attention to other strategies for protecting the state’s treasured lakes, streams and groundwater from residential waste.

The Idaho Senate voted this week 27-7 to overturn rules issued by the Department of Environmental Quality to increase the drain field capacity required for septic systems. The House is expected to be just as emphatic. This comes two years after lawmakers nixed a similar proposal that would have applied to just the five northern counties rather than the whole state.

The conflict here is a familiar one.

For an on-site sewage treatment system to work properly, it needs enough leaching space. The bigger the house (with more occupants), the more toilet flushes and the more space that’s needed for septic treatment of all that wastewater.

Builders and developers see that as using up land where they could be constructing more homes.

And in the world of politics, as the Panhandle Health District has discovered, builders and developers have more influence than the environment and public health.

Two years ago, the health district pushed for tighter rules, arguing that the state’s existing space requirements for septic systems were too tolerant. Idaho’s standards, among the least stringent in the nation, are approximately half what the federal Environmental Protection Agency expects. A statewide survey of 2,800 homes has confirmed those 2007 findings were about right if not an understatement of the problem.

In Boise this week, legislators declared their reverence for the region’s natural waters, but they voted for the developers.

Meanwhile, the chances remain that cramped septic systems will fail, a risk that threatens public health, not to mention the aquifer into which inadequately treated wastewater could seep or the surface waters into which it could run. Such non-point sources are estimated to contribute half of the phosphates that flow down the Spokane River to feed algae blooms in Long Lake and stall licensure of a new sewage treatment plant needed in Spokane County.

Next month, DEQ officials will huddle with representatives of Idaho’s regional health districts. They won’t abandon their commitment to water protection, but they may resort to other methods – to include gathering more data on system failures and requiring property owners to pump their septic tanks periodically.

It’s always good to have a Plan B. But in a state where quality of life is so worth protecting, it’s disappointing that Plan A got turned down.

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