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Septic systems could see more inspections

Health department board will weigh regulations suggested by state
The San Juan Basin Public Health board will consider new regulations for septic systems in the coming months. The proposed regulations could allow homeowners more design options.

Regulations for private septic systems will change in the next 12 months and some possible rules could help protect groundwater and give homeowners more design options.

The state recently released new mandatory regulations and some optional rules the San Juan Basin Public Health board could choose to enact.

The San Juan Basin Public Health board will consider and vote on the optional changes suggested by the state of Colorado, said health department Executive Director, Liane Jollon.

The regulatory changes would likely be introduced during the winter to avoid disrupting the construction season, she said.

Last year, the department permitted about 260 new septic systems, and it expects the demand will continue as homes are built in the county.

The three biggest optional changes that the board could adopt are: a requirement to have septic systems tested when they are sold, allowing advanced septic systems that must be regularly maintained, and allowing residents to restore a failing septic system rather than replace it, said Surface and Drinking Water Manager Brian Devine.

There are about 16,000 private septic systems in a three-county area excluding those installed illegally or before owners needed permits to install a system.

“Every single one of those have a design lifetime, and some of them have been operating for much longer,” he said.

The health department finds malfunctioning systems mostly through complaints, he said.

Requiring inspections when property is sold could create a reliable way to catch failing septic systems, Devine said. These systems have the potential to contaminate ground water and surface water.

Other counties that have required inspections when property is sold in Colorado have seen a 25 percent increase of repair and alteration permits, according to an email from Flannery O’Neil, deputy director of operations at the department.

The inspections could also protect potential homeowners moving from other areas who are not familiar with septic systems, Jollon said.

Home buyers and lenders can request an inspection, and those can be done by the health department or by private inspectors, so the health department doesn’t always receive the results of the inspections.

A new requirement could ensure that the health department receives a report about each system, Devine said.

Smaller, non-conventional septic systems may be allowed under the new regulations, but they would require homeowners to commit to regular maintenance, Devine said.

Rather than employing a passive water treatment that relies on the interaction of waste, bacteria and oxygen, the non-conventional systems actively treat the water. Systems that actively treat the water can have smaller leach fields.

However, if they fail, a lower-quality effluent flows into a smaller leach field.

So to allow the systems, the health department would likely require proof of maintenance, such as a maintenance contract or a water quality test.

The health department would also have to make sure maintenance contracts are renewed or extended, Devine said.

The state’s updates to the regulations also allow for smaller septic systems for tiny homes. Previously, all homes, including tiny homes, were required to have a septic system designed for a two bedroom house, which has been a hurdle for owners of tiny homes, Jollon said.

Every health department has the option to not to allow smaller septic systems, but San Juan Basin Public Health is likely to enact the state’s rule, O’Neil said in an email.

The health department staff met with real estate agents and waste water treatment professionals, and expects to do more outreach before the board of health makes a decision on the regulations, Jollon said.

“Our goal is to do what’s right for our community, she said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Sep 20, 2021
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