Aging septic systems under scrutiny
March 25, 2016
In the late 1950s, Salt Lake City residents started hearing about Summit Park, a new summer-home community east of Parleys Summit. the 1960s there were others, including Timberline, just east of Summit Park, and Hidden Cove, west of what is now Jeremy Ranch.
The first homes were little more than cabins, served by dirt roads, rudimentary private water systems and septic tanks. Then came Interstate 80, making the trip to the teeming Salt Lake Valley an easy commute. Before long people were converting their summer cabins into year-round homes.
Summit Park installed a sewer system in the early 1980s and Timberline replaced its water system a few years later. However, several subdivisions in the Snyderville Basin are still wrestling with issues stemming from their summer-home roots. For instance, homes in large swaths of the basin, from Hidden Cove on the west to Silver Creek Estates on the east, are still served with septic systems.
When you consider that some of these communities are now 50 years old and the average lifespan of a septic system, according to the experts, is about 25 years, well, you can see why Summit County officials are concerned.
"What happens when these systems begin to reach their life (expectancy)?" asks Phil Bondurant, director of environmental health for the Summit County Health Department. "Where do we take it? Where do we go with it?"
Compounding the problem, Bondurant said, is that many of the older septic systems were not designed for year-round use.
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"Now the home is being used full time and it’s got six people in it and the tank was originally sized for seasonal use," he said, using a hypothetical example. "That 500-gallon tank is no longer adequate for providing the type of service that they need. And that’s where we run into problems We’ve opened up systems before where (the septic tank) was just a 50-gallon drum that was put in back in the ’60s."
Meanwhile, water-quality studies have shown elevated levels of "nutrients" such as phosphorus in nearby reservoirs, including East Canyon, Rockport and Echo. How much of that pollution, county officials wondered, comes from malfunctioning septic systems? To find out, they hired SWCA Environmental Consultants, a national firm with offices in Utah, to conduct a study.
"We have evidence of areas where we know that traditional systems struggle," Bondurant said. "However, going off of intuition and opinion does not serve the public very well. So we need to ensure that our opinions and intuition are backed by science and statistics."
Lucy Parham, an SWCA water resource specialist, reviewed the study at the 9th annual Salt Lake County Watershed Symposium held late last year in Salt Lake City.
Parham said SWCA looked at Snyderville Basin subdivisions from a number of angles, including their density, the number and age of their septic systems, the history of system failure in each subdivision, and their proximity to surface water. She also noted that the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) classifies the entire Snyderville Basin as "very limited for septic systems due to slow water movement through the soil, slope, and depth to bedrock.
"So because this was the same for all subdivisions, we didn’t actually use it for all analysis, but it was something that we considered," she said.
Using these parameters, SWCA assigned a rank to each subdivision.
"You can see that there are four subdivisions that came out as high a high risk of contributing to surface-water contamination," Parham said. "So the Health Department is looking to use this data to inform future changes in the regulation. How that plays out exactly has yet to be determined, whether it’s ‘Are we going to connect these subdivisions to sewer? Are we going to enforce upgrading septic systems to nonconventional styles?’ So that’s how they’re currently using this data."
The four areas with the highest rank are Hidden Cove, Timberline, and parts of Silver Creek Estates and Highland Estates.
Parham said that SWCA also took samples from surface water in the Snyderville Basin in 2014 to look for "fecal indicator bacteria" to point to the presence of pathogens.
"When I say pathogens, I’m talking viruses, bacteria protozoa. They’re fecal in origin, from a variety of animals. Their implications for human health include gastrointestinal, respiratory, eye, ear, nose, throat and skin disease," she said.
"In 2014 we were sampling only for human sources, (but) we did not get any hits in any of our sites. We ended up not sampling in 2015 because we didn’t have the runoff that we needed to produce sample volume."
According to Bondurant, SWCA will resume surface-water testing when there’s enough runoff to make the samples meaningful.
Bondurant said that current studies have focused on the Snyderville Basin because of the development.
"You look out onto the East Side and you see the densities aren’t nearly as intense. And those areas where there is density there is sewer service," he said.
However, he added that, if the budget is approved, the same studies will be conducted on the East Side beginning in 2016, "so we’ll have an all-inclusive map of what’s going on those high-risk areas for the entire Summit County."
What these studies have yet to determine is how much of the pollution in the reservoirs comes from human sources and how much comes from agriculture.
"It (agriculture) is a contributing factor, there’s no doubt about it," Bondurant said. "But the idea of approaching the farmers would have to come from the (Utah) Department of Agriculture. It’s not within our jurisdictional boundaries. They are protected under a certain set of state rules and laws, administrative rules that govern them. And those rules and laws are not assigned to the local health department."
And another government regulator, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would have to take the lead in any study of possible reservoir pollution from old mine sites, he said.
Meanwhile, in the Snyderville Basin, septic systems are still being approved for new homes in areas where sewer service is not an option.
"Yeah, they’re being permitted," Bondurant said, "but they need to still meet the state standard for what type of percolation rate the soil will accept. So, prior to installing a system, we require what’s called a ‘perc test’ or percolation test to see at what rate the soil can accept the water."
When septic systems fail, he said, it’s often because the soils become saturated and can no longer accept the effluent from the tank. If the tank is still intact and the home is on a large enough lot, the homeowner may be able to move the drain field to a different location.
"In situations like Hidden Cove, very rarely is that an option, because the lots up there are so tight. If somebody is on a hillside and they’ve built into a hillside and it’s a quarter acre, they have nowhere else to put a traditional drain field. So there’s science and technology out there that allows for what we consider an alternative system," Bondurant said.
Those alternative septic systems typically start with a conventional storage tank, he said, but instead of a drain field use an above-ground filtration system using sand or fiber that is changed regularly. In some systems, the water goes through a disinfection chamber using an agent such as ultraviolet light.
"The state has a list of approved alternative systems or alternative technologies that are allowed And then our guys that work in the wastewater division will review those plans and ensure that they meet state code," he said.
But what about following Summit Park’s lead and connecting all the homes to the sewer?
Bondurant said that decision is up to the homeowners. Recent state law makes it difficult, if not impossible, for local government to mandate the formation of an assessment district and compel homeowners to hook up to the sewer, he said.
"So we don’t have that option The only option we have is a voluntary assessment district and that would require the majority buy-in from these areas from the homeowners to run sewer lines up there. So, as you can imagine, taking a place like Hidden Cove the cost and the logistics of running sewer with pump stations and tearing up the roads up there … is not an easy thing that people are willing to buy into, not to mention the financial costs associated with having to tie into the line. The county wouldn’t be able to fund a project like that. That’s my understanding," he said.
"That’s not to say that sewer will never happen up there. But, in light of recent events, we’ve come across some of the hurdles that we’d have to jump over to get that to occur," he said. "There have been discussions, and I just don’t think that right now there’s the appetite to pursue something like that at the county level."
Bondurant said that he is willing to answer questions from homeowners. He can be reached at 435-333-1584.