Edition 7, 1998

Features in this issue:

Did you know there is a newsletter devoted to drinking and wastewater funding opportunities for small communities?

Water Sense, published by the national drinking water clearinghouse is a publication devoted to helping small communities navigate through the funding maze. They discuss funding sources and funding criteria, financing resources, regulations, cost-saving strategies, and innovative financing mechanisms. It is geared toward funding drinking water projects, but they discuss wastewater as well. Sign up for your free copy by calling (800) 624-8301. Newsletters are also available on the web at: http://www.estd.wvu.edu/ndwc/NDWC_newsletters.html.

Come One, Come All! On-Site Field Day July 17th

Curious about these technologies we've been talking about? Want to get some design ideas? Come to the On-Site Field Day. The field day is July 17th at the Agronomy Research Center from 9:00 to 4:00. What are we covering?

  1. Design of Sand Filters
  2. Soils and On-Site Systems
  3. Design of Cluster Systems
  4. Design of Constructed Wetlands
  5. Pump Fundamentals and Selection
  6. Rule Update and General Information
Admission is free. Feel free to bring a bag lunch and join us for a chat. See you there rain or shine!

Building a Wetland Construction in Indiana

A manual for single residence constructed wetland design in Indiana is now available. It is on our website at: http://www.agry.purdue.edu/agronomy/landuse/septic/septic/septic.htm. Look under articles.

An Editorial by Joe Yahner

Do septic systems really perform well? The answer to this isn't a simple yes or no. When an on-site system is installed, the conditions for its success (or failure) are set. If you have a good site, with a reasonably good soil, a well-engineered design, competent installation, and then homeowner maintenance, yes, I think the chances of success are quite good. However, if links in the chain fail problems occur.

How important are on-site systems in the state? Perhaps as many as 50% of new homes utilize septic systems. Newer regulations established in the 1990's put a firm base under the decisions and few should fail. However, the overall septic system problem in the state is generally unknown to many people. The amount of failure (often confused with failure rate) in some areas can be as high as 70%. Effluent flows from the home to a ditch, surface water, or enters groundwater without sufficient filtration and purification.

Why do we have all these failures? In addition to sporadic problems with new systems and a widespread lack of maintenance, there is a legacy of systems from the 1940's to the 1980's. For example, between 1940 and 1960, approximately 300,000 homes received indoor plumbing. Replacements for the outhouse might have allowed effluent to exit to a tile line or a ditch. Now these are part of our "legacy".

If we desire to improve the environment, maintain a high standard of public health, and protect property values we must find a way to handle these legacy systems. If we do not act positively and try something different and new, the situation will not change.

One of the ways we might approach a program it is to say that at the time of sale of a home, the system musteither be shown to meet the code of December 1990 or later, or be brought up to current code. If there were limitations, such as a lack of space, the home could be equipped with an alternative pretreatment technology. This would be a point of entry into the process of rehabilitation.

Now, if we do this, a homeowner may have a very large bill coming up. The repair cost of some of these systems is in the order of $5,000 - $10,000. How can we ask people to do this with any great degree of sincerity? One of the ways is to provide low interest loans, for example up to $10,000 at 1% or 2% interest.

Revolving funds can also be used to provide help to smaller communities where there is almost no chance of repairs on very small individual lots. Small communities could be secure or grow. At the moment, they are often groups of homes in failure, in theory violating the law. If this is the case, then we have many communities in Indiana full of homes in which the homeowners have lost their equity. This is a staggering sum of money, and a staggering burden to put on people.

How can you sell a house to somebody without telling them that the home is in violation of the law?

Next we need to talk to the homeowners. Many new rural residents (recently from the city) forget that they have their own little sewage treatment system in the backyard that should be handled with care and consideration. How do we convince homeowners of their responsibility? I think the only way is through education with some of its origins at Purdue.

I've just spoken about the great number of systems that need to be repaired, the lack of suitable space in many cases for that repair, and the costly-ness of the repair. Are there any new technologies that can overcome these problems? Are there ways that we can improve effluent treatment and put it into smaller absorption fields? Are there ways we can hook groups of homes together not to a municipal plant, but to a small treatment system? The answer to these questions is yes.

These "innovative", "alternative", or "experimental" technologies are not very common in Indiana, but have been used in many other places in the United States and overseas. Perhaps we should start by changing the name from "experimental" to "appropriate", as many of the technologies have been researched and/or used for 20-100 years or more. In some cases Indiana is calling technologies "experimental" that are the same vintage as the airplane. These technologies could make a great impact on the qualities of both our surface and ground waters. Additionally, if we utilize technologies that will remove nitrogen we would have a big impact on the certain areas of the state that have problems with nitrate contamination from on-site sewage.

At the present time a new septic system rule is being reviewed. I would hope that this rule would allow as much ease as possible in permitting the use of these "newer" technologies. This would be a great benefit to the state. I know there is considerable fear of doing this, fear of turning something loose that contractors do not know how to install or maintain. Any on-site wastewater treatment system, whether it is for a single home or a cluster of homes requires maintenance. If the rule approaches the problem, it can have an impact. If we make it difficult to use the appropriate technologies, if we continue to keep on using the technologies of past, and if we continue to ignore the necessary system maintenance, we won't make a dent in this problem.

Returning to the question "do septic systems work?" The1990 rule has served us very well, but it was set up mainly to look at individual homes. With the growth of residential areas in the countryside there are many subdivisions going in using on-site waste disposal. The development of these subdivisions, many with more than 100 homes, on some of the most difficult soils in the state, with both individual septic systems and wells, goes well beyond what I believe the rule envisioned.

What is the relationship between waste disposal and planning? We say that each individual lot ought to act like an individual lot. However, when looking at a subdivision, especially one where there is a large number of on-site failures, you realize that many individual lots in high density do not act as a set of individual systems. Subdivisions on wells and septics should be looked upon not as the norm, but something exceptional. Housing concentrations should be connected to a sewer and community water. It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean conventional sewers and treatment plants, there are a variety of less expensive alternatives for groups of homes. I believe in this as an exercise in prudence. Protection of the homebuyer and public health should be paramount. What is the risk of, 20 years from now, of having another set of "legacy" problems?

How large should a lot be? The septic system occupies a fairly large space on the lot. For security, room for a second system is needed. A "hypothetical" lot is a not perfectly uniform and without trees. There may be some relatively steep slopes. People often move out to the country not only for the countryside, but wish to add a swimming pool, a barn for a lawn tractor, and a number of other things. Putting all of these on a lot along with two septic systems, encourages or requires lots of two to three acres.

Contemplating the above scenario, the relationship between planning and on-site systems emerges. There is a growing realization that in many cases sprawl is not paying for itself in increased tax revenue. The economics of the situation are not well enough understood to think that many of these subdivisions are a good idea.

I think the closer we can come to a secure on-site wastewater treatment system, be it a community system, a cluster system or a municipal system, the better we are doing for our individual citizens. This has a huge impact on planning. Planning commissions loath to say that you cannot build 10, 15, or 20 houses on septic systems because people want to live in the country with no cares and low taxes. Not every piece of land is suited to housing. The needs of the community are important; decisions based on health, safety and welfare are the business of zoning and planning. We need to look very seriously at all of these things when we are deciding to act, or not to act.

These issues bring up an intriguing question. The rule indicates places you can and cannot put septic systems. Are there places in the state, certain geologic materials, or soil regions where the failure rate will be much higher than someplace else? The answer: yes there are places like that. Examples could include the clayey areas and dense tills in the northeastern part of the state and the poorly drained soils in the southeastern Indiana with fragipans.Furthermore, if we were to look at where effluent goes, we should also throw in some of the karst topography (characterized by sinkholes) in southern Indiana. These are places where septic systems should be used sparingly.

A place where it has always seemed logical to use on-site wastewater disposal systems are the well drained sandy soils, for instance, those located in the St. Joe river basin, or the sand and gravel terraces along our rivers. Limited research suggests that if we really start looking at nitrate levels, and checked the bacterial counts in home wells, we would be frightened. This practice is asking for trouble.

One further area is the central area of the state where as high as 80-90% of soils are poorly or somewhat poorly drained. Indiana has said in the rule that it is possible to use tile drainage to lower the water table around septic systems. Again, it may make sense on an individual system on an infinitely large lot, but it should not be depended on for groups of homes. I believe we have a very overoptimistic idea of what a perimeter drain around an on-site system can accomplish.

There are a few more important points. If we are to establish a means by which we can "cure" the problems by looking at community systems and more advanced technologies, we are going to need more people who are trained and capable in the area of on-site and small community waste disposal. Possibly, Indiana should set up eight to ten regional centers where trained people can be located. These centers would be a place where communities, individuals, engineers, and contractors could go for advice and consultation. They would also serve as a place where plans could be reviewed and approved, thus increasing their local knowledge and expertise. The State Board of Health staff in Indianapolis is small, and really is not completely capable of handling all of these problems for the whole state. They have some other things that they should probably be doing, for instance, they could be investigating how Indiana is going to manage wastes, maintain systems, educate homeowners and contractors, and introduce "appropriate" technologies. I believe this is the job of the state. The regional centers could be very helpful. At the moment, some county health departments are well staffed and well paid. In other places, the county health department is very much understaffed for the kind of work they are doing, the training level is low, and the pay is abysmal. This is not the way to run a ship. Appropriate decisions require information and data, yet many sanitarians do not even have access to computers to keep basic records. If we are to improve things, one of the things the state could do is to look at levels of compensation and effort that is needed at the local community. It is a good idea for decisions on waste disposal systems to be made locally, because it is close to where the problem lies and close to the environment where the system will function. If there is to be success, there will need to be an upgrading of local health departments.

Finally, I suspect that most of these ideas come down to the local and state government. Individuals are needed to write, talk, discuss, and influence legislators and local officials to create the possibility for change. We should not settle for the lowest common denominator. Let's set our sights a little higher, caring not only for today, but also for the problems inherited from the past. Let's consider how we can improve the quality of life, the environment, and the ability of people to have security in their own homes. This is what should be done, and leadership is needed. Repairing systems will require funding. Goals should be set. If the means to improve Indiana's on-site conditions are to be available, local government and the state legislature should provide those means.

Joseph Yahner will be retiring from Purdue University in June. We thank him for his years of dedicated service and wish him good luck on his next set of adventures.

News from ISDH

The Indiana State Department of Health has received numerous comments concerning our proposed rule revisions for the Commercial and Residential On-Site sewage disposal programs. The comments were both general and specific, pro and con. They were received from local health departments (both individual and groups), IEHA, IOWPA, soil scientists, installers, engineers, builders and developers, county commissioners, and state legislators. ISDH staff is in the process of tabulating all of the comments for review and consideration. We appreciate all of the input during this preliminary stage of drafting the rule revision. All of the comments will be given careful consideration by ISDH staff. A report will be made available summarizing this information and the resulting decisions by ISDH. This report should be completed by late summer, 1988.