Sewers and Septic Systems – What Is the Problem?
Revised Jan 10, 2019 – Will be submitted to the Brown County Democrat, Guest Opinion (Target date for publication Jan 21, 2019)
The Brown County Regional Sewer District (BCRSD) Board is taking action that could affect the quality of life for most Brown County citizens. A regional sewer district has the authority to require or waive a sewer connection for any residence in their respective district. A possible correlation regarding a relationship between the age and efficacy of septic systems and the quality of water in our lakes, streams and creeks leads to a need for the BCRSD to address two key questions as an integral part of a countywide strategy: To what extent should residences located near a wastewater treatment facility be required to hook up to sewers? To what extent should all residences – 90 percent of which utilize septic systems – be required to have their septic systems inspected on a recurring basis?
Everyone wants a safe and healthy environment. But citizens should also expect that elected and appointed representatives identify and document the process that they will apply to understand a problem and determine the best solutions for the county.
The standard practice within the county is for groups with a special interest in a project to apply an ad-hoc process. Ad-hoc is defined as an approach that is taken for a particular purpose without considering the wider scale impacts. Ad-hoc strategies are suboptimal – they do not lead to the best results.
The special interests that support the Bean Blossom sewer project are those with a commercial interest such as the owners of the Trailer Park, Brownies Restaurant, and the Bill Monroe Music Park. Individual interests include those of the current President of the BCRSD Board who has acknowledged that he owns rental properties in the area to be served that do not have adequate septic systems. Other interests represent those in the area of development. These interests are represented by the county redevelopment commission that is promoting economic development for the area without a documented plan that is supported by the community.
The emphasis on development was recently identified in the article “Waste disposal ‘first and foremost’ in development decisions,” which appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of the Brown County Democrat.
The need for a better problem solving and decision-making process was recently reinforced by comments made by BCRSD board member Clint Studabaker. Regarding the issues of septic systems and sewers, he stated: “It’s not rocket science. … It’s more complicated than that.”
The situation is no more “complicated” than any other significant challenge with political, social, cultural and economic implications. What makes it complicated is when ad-hoc processes are applied to develop solutions that may benefit a few but can lead to more problems for most citizens.
I have provided an example of a decision-making process to members of the county council, commissioners and members of the BCRSD board. It is also available on the Independent Voters of Brown County IN website.
How this situation arose
At its June 18 meeting, the county council approved a request by the BCRSD board for $270,000 to provide the funding needed to submit an application for funding of a wastewater treatment plant in Bean Blossom. This project is estimated to cost over $7.3 million with funding provided by the State Revolving Fund (SRF). The SRF is funded through federal grants. The SRF approves funding based on the income levels of the population to be served and on environmental need.
In 2018, the BCRSD board spent approximately $70,000 on engineering and consulting services. At the Dec. 17 county council meeting, Mr. Studabaker requested that the balance of the funds be appropriated for use in 2019. The county council will vote on this request on Thursday, Jan. 24.
In addition to the request for funding, Mr. Studabaker made a presentation on the status of the project that reinforced the need for a countywide strategy. Most of his presentation covered environmental challenges and issues in the areas of water quality, soils and septic systems. Outdated water sample results have indicated high E. coli levels. Tests are now available that can determine if the E. coli levels are due to causes that include animal contamination or human contamination due to failed septic systems.
At the sewer board’s Jan. 8 meeting, Mr. Studabaker reinforced that a countywide strategy was needed and could take 30 years to implement. Implementation would be supported in phases starting with the Bean Blossom area.
Data provided by the BCRSD identified that there are approximately 8,400 households in Brown County, and only about 700, or 8 percent, have sewer access.
At the BCRSD’s Dec. 4 meeting, BCRSD board President Judy Swift-Powdrill recommended that the Bean Blossom Sewer Project be delayed until the need for sewers was validated and the residents’ support for it was established. Her fellow board members did not specifically address her recommendation and voted to continue funding the project. At the BCRSD’s Dec. 11 meeting, it was announced that Ms. Swift-Powdrill chose to resign.
The previous BCRSD board president, Evan Werling, also resigned. He, too, stated that a need for sewers was not validated. He also warned citizens at a public meeting that the BCRSD board has the power to enter into contracts without commissioner or council approval. If this does not concern you, it should. The context for Mr. Werling’s warning concerned the contract proposed by the Town of Nashville to provide sewer service. Mr. Werling and the Board did not believe the contract was in the best interests of the county and voted to reject the contract.
In his presentation at the Dec. 17 county council meeting, Mr. Studabaker did not address the lack of a documented need or desire for sewers, as recommended by the two previous BCRSD board presidents. Mr. Studabaker – a retired civil and environmental engineer with a special interest in the watershed – is working to make an environmental-based case (unsubstantiated at this point) that soils, water quality, and the age and condition of septic systems in the county are the “problem.” Mr. Studabaker is also on a health board committee that is working to update the septic ordinance.
An opinion that is often used to justify the need for sewers is the “estimate” that a useful life of a septic system “averages” 25 years. However, an “average” of 25 years could include a useful life ranging from 1 to 49 years. Variables that affect useful life include design, location, materials, equipment, technology, water usage, maintenance, and soils to name a few. Can a well-designed and maintained system last the lifetime of a home?
A worse case for residents in the Bean Blossom area is having a failed system and not having the land or soils needed to replace the system. Sewers would likely be welcome in these cases. However, access to sewers will not be an option in all cases. Many residents in the county live in areas where installation of sewers may not be economically feasible. In this case, a countywide strategy and plan is needed to identify the range of possible options that are available to citizens.
Questions that need to be answered
Before the BCRSD receives any more funding from county taxpayers, its board member000000s should provide written responses to the following questions:
BCRSD Board – Roles, responsibilities and authority
(1) What criteria will be used by the sewer board to grant waivers for a sewer connection?
(2) Can the health department or BCRSD take action that will force inspections of septic systems with outdated records, especially the ones installed before 1977?
(3) Can the BCRSD, with IDEM’s support, expand its boundaries to include conservancies? Can it take over or consolidate the Helmsburg sewer district or any other sewer district? If so, how would this be done? What are the projected costs of operating this utility? How many employees will be needed?
(4) Do the other sewer districts (e.g., Nashville, Gnaw Bone, Helmsburg) have the power to require people to connect to a sewer or pay for sewer services not rendered?
(5) Other than appointments, do the commissioners and council have any authority over the BCRSD, or is the governing authority IDEM? If IDEM, why isn’t that organization funding the BCRSD?
(6) What funding is available to assist people to meet any future health department or BCRSD requirements for sewer hookups, septic system inspections, and possibly septic systems repairs/replacements? What if a residence is not in an area that could be served by sewers and a new/upgraded septic system is not possible due to terrain and soil conditions?
Service area – Proposed Bean Blossom sewer project
(7) What is the evidence showing that there is a problem with failed septic systems in the Bean Blossom area that justifies a $7.3 million investment of taxpayer money?
(8) At the June 21 public meeting of the BCRSD board, citizens were first informed that an application for the Bean Blossom sewer project was being submitted to the state. Citizens expressed concerns and asked numerous questions. Board members responded that citizens would be provided with answers to their questions. This information was finally provided at the Jan. 8 meeting and neglected key questions: What percent of the 240 customers to be served, support the Bean Blossom project? How many citizens will request waivers and how many might not grant permission for any needed easements? If easements are not granted, will eminent domain be needed?
(9) What other (likely less expensive) wastewater treatment options have been identified to support development and commercial interests in Bean Blossom?
(10) The Helmsburg wastewater treatment plant has excess capacity. Why hasn’t an arrangement with the Helmsburg sewer board been worked out?
Economic development – Questions for commissioners and council
(11) If the “need” for sewers is to support commercial and development interests, should the council and commissioners require that Bean Blossom area residents follow the example of the Helmsburg community? Leaders in Helmsburg, with the help of the county redevelopment commission, created an economic development area (EDA) and formed a community development corporation (CDC). The CDC provides all residents with the opportunity to identify what they want and do not want in terms of community and economic development.
(12) Should CDCs be promoted for use in other areas of the county? Note that the draft of the 1993 comprehensive plan (available at the planning office) identified a development strategy for hamlets and villages within the county.
To summarize, the county council should require the development of a countywide assessment and a strategy for sewers and septic systems before any more county money is invested in the Bean Blossom sewer project. An effective strategy requires a thorough understanding of the scope and extent of the problem and would address the questions identified above.
If county citizens want the best results from plans, policies and projects, then a collaborative as opposed to an ad-hoc process must be used to assure citizens that any changes will most likely result in a better county for everyone.
Tim Clark of Brown County is a quality improvement practitioner, educator and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a senior member of the American Society for Quality and is a certified quality auditor. He has master’s degrees in strategic studies and public administration and has served on the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional information on the Project – Articles and Letters in the Brown County Democrat, Facebook Posts at Brown County Matters – Regional Sewer Board – Bean Blossom Sewer Project – For the Record
Feb 18, 2019. Joint Meeting – Helmsburg and Gnaw Bone Regional Sewer Districts. Provides some background information on the history of their plants and the collaboration on billing.
Jan 8, 2019. Answers to Questions prepared by the BCRSD Board 20190108 qanda
PowerPoint Presentation presented by Clint Studabaker 20181217 BC Council December 17, 2018, Presentation
Mother Earth News – Secrets of the Septic System If your home has a septic system you should know how it works — and how it might fail. Our correspondent provides an explanation.