Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Would $10 have been enough to monitor septics at poisonous Summit Lake?

Not for nothing, but this post was hard to write straight-faced. I feel like this should be a light your hair on fire moment for this county commission and their constituents. I can't believe people aren't screaming at the county commissioners demanding to know why they didn't stand up for public health and institute a measly $10 annual fee. Even the high end of $54 A YEAR seems like a steal compared to toxins in your drinking water.

Google imagery of Summit Lake. Obviously, where else was I going to get it?
The Thurston County commission passed a new plan to manage septic systems last winter.

A new set of county commissioners were seated and voted to strip the ability to actually pay for the plan a few months later. A $10 annual fee was just too much to help ensure clean, drinkable water.

Then there was an outbreak of poisonous algae in Summit Lake. According to the state Department of Health, malfunctioning septic systems are one of the likely causes of a poisonous algae outbreak.
The problem on Summit Lake is that the same residents who live along the lake and use septic systems to deal with their human waste also depend on the lake for their drinking water.

Do we know for sure that septic systems are the cause of excess nutrients in Summit Lake that caused a poisonous algae outbreak? Well, no, we don't. But that we don't know this is the main problem.

Any sort of expanded monitoring or education that could have done anything to prevent a situation like the one at Summit Lake will go wanting for lack of funding.

In the approved, but apparently unfunded septic plan, the county specifically called out Summit Lake as a very vulnerable spot for mismanaged septics. Said the plan:
Summit Lake, which is used by most residents for their drinking water source, shall be designated as a Sensitive Area. All wastewater disposal systems in the Summit Lake watershed shall have required operational certificates and dye testing to assure that routine inspections and maintenance is completed at least every three years and failing systems are identified and repaired. 
The plan also pointed out that Summit Lake, despite being the water source for drinking water for people living on Summit Lake, presents some real issues about how exactly septic tanks wouldn't pollute that source:
Its steep slopes, shallow soils, and generally small lots sizes make siting and functioning of on-site sewage systems around the lake difficult. A 1992-1997 sanitary survey found 58 systems failing (18%) – the majority of which were repaired. Surface waters cannot be adequately protected from contamination to be safely used as a domestic water supply without treatment. A public health advisory issued in 1987 advises against consumption of untreated lake water at Summit Lake. A comprehensive program would ensure routine inspection and maintenance of all OSS within the Summit Lake basin and identification and correction of failing systems. The Summit Lake watershed should be considered for special area designation due to the serious threat posed to the drinking water supply by failing septic systems.
Twenty years ago they knew that 18 percent of the septics were failing because they went out and looked. Just like when they found 14 percent failing on Henderson Inlet.

Here's the underlying point: Since 1997 the county hasn't gone back to take another look at septics around Summit Lake. Now the water has too many toxins to drink. The reason we can't rule out septics as the source for algae with toxins is because we haven't looked.

Nothing that I've seen from the county says that they can do anything to track down the source of the algae. The very least you could say is that $10 a month could have gone to a small bit of dye testing to see if in twenty years any septics around the lake started not working.

Right now what the county is doing is just waiting for sunlight and time to deal with the algae. But, I'm sure a more progressive standpoint would be get out there and start figuring out why we have a public health crisis on Summit Lake to begin with.


Unknown said...

Emmett, I am so frustrated about the repeal of the fee because I have great hope for our moving as a community to more ecological distributed systems for water supply and for waste treatment. To simply bury our heads and live with non-functioning septic systems is more than two steps backwards for each step forward. We need to fund and implement testing, repairs and improvements, and planning for an alternative to outdated septic systems. The County, Cities, and PUD are all together in this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article and the link to the County health department’s statement about causes of algal blooms. After a community meeting in Yelm on April 26, 2017, I asked Commissioner Edwards why he rescinded the septic fee. He said it was because it was scheduled to incrementally increase. I then asked why he did not just rescind the incremental increase part, he acted as though he had not thought to do that. I mentioned the money could have been used to educate about septic maintenance and also do more testing for leaks. He said that if a septic tank was leaking, it would back up and the homeowner would know it, implying dye tests were unnecessary. When hearing this crazy talk, several of us told him he was wrong. I hope you can get wider publication of your article. Know any Summit Lake homeowners?

Justin Kover said...

I would like to know if a kilogram to the negative first power is a smaller unit of measure than a liter. Scientists in the field use the former, the County is using the latter. Given the staff's propensity to skew science in favor of granting them greater jurisdiction over real property, I would like to know that they are actually utilizing real science in their assessments.

Justin Kover said...

EDIT: They are an identical unit of measure with two different notations. Liter = kg^(-1). -Kover

Unknown said...

Justin, I am looking hard at septic and sewer issues right now. Will you help me out? Please describe a case where staff skewed science to gain greater County jurisdiction over real property. I know this is a divisive and emotional issue, but it's my job to dig in and understand as much as I can.

Anonymous said...

A comment for Justin: A kilogram is a unit of mass; A liter is a unit of volume. If you are talking about water specifically, one liter of water has a mass of one kilogram (at ~ 4 degrees Celsius.) Your statement is not correct.