Your Watershed column: The new Regulation 43 — septic systems and your water
An onsite wastewater treatment system, more commonly known as a septic system, consists of an intentionally designed chamber with inlets and outlets, utilizing settling and anaerobic bacteria to decompose solid and organic waste. Septic systems are common in rural and even some suburban areas where it isn’t realistic or affordable to connect to the nearest municipality’s sewage system. All water and other material that goes down the sink or shower drain, through the laundry outlet, or down the toilet goes into the septic system.
In a septic system, wastewater flows into the tank, the solids settle in the bottom, and the remaining liquid wastewater flows out of the tank and into a leach field. The leach field consists of a series of trenches designed to spread out the wastewater, each of which are surrounded by gravel and soil. The idea is that the gravel and soil provide an ideal microbial environment for the nutrients, pollutants and pathogens in the wastewater to be neutralized before reaching the local stream or entering the groundwater.
Garfield County is revising its onsite wastewater treatment system regulations following new regulations put forth by the state. Does this impact you? Considering the consequences of a poorly maintained onsite wastewater treatment system, and with approximately 3,500 out of about 17,000 housing units in Garfield County relying on onsite wastewater treatment systems, the answer could be “yes.”
Some homeowners like septic systems because they don’t have a regular sewage bill from their municipality. Instead, they must properly maintain their system, but they have control, and more ownership, of what goes into their system and how much and how regularly they have to pay for maintenance. By only flushing human waste and toilet paper, by properly disposing of chemicals, and by using a compost collection service or backyard system to break down cooking grease and other food waste, all maintenance is preventative. With care and preventative maintenance, septic system owners can save in the long run.
Septic systems go astray, however, when they aren’t cared for. Septic system leakage isn’t a foreign concept to health and environment officials. Toilet water leaking into the ground untreated might make its innocent way down through hundreds of feet of soil before being neutralized by the soil microbes. More likely, the wastewater will leak into a nearby stream, creating algal blooms and wreaking havoc on the balance of water quality in the ecosystem.
If your home isn’t connected to a public sanitary sewer system, you may be utilizing a private drinking water well. This water source may be near your septic system. Phosphorus, nitrogen and bacteria aren’t exactly the constituents of quality drinking water.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division adopted Regulation 43 nearly a year ago, and counties have until June 30th of this year to adopt versions of this regulation that are at least as stringent as the state’s. Among other items, the regulation specifies the categories and type of material installed in and around the leach field, and it requires additional inspection of systems to ensure that they meet industry standards.
Septic systems should be inspected at least every three years, and typically pumped free of their settled solids every three to five years. Contact your local county officials to learn what you have on your site, and to learn who to call for a quality service provider. Be thoughtful about what you put down the drain and how much you use your garbage disposal. Mark the free hazardous waste collection day at the local landfill on your calendar. Practice water conservation by installing high-efficiency toilets, shower heads and laundry machines. Take one more step to being considerate of your local streams, and of your own and your community’s drinking water supply.
Jon Nicolodi is the community outreach coordinator for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. To learn more about the MCWC, go to http://www.midcowatershed.org. You can also find it on Facebook at http://facebook.com/midcowatershed.