Thurston County has a septic system problem that threatens the region’s water supply.
Septic systems are small-scale sewage treatment systems typically found on properties with no connection to sewer lines. Within high-density urban areas, these systems can pollute groundwater and surface water.
An estimated 16,744 properties in the Olympia-Lacey-Tumwater area rely on septic systems, according to the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, which handles wastewater in the region. Of these septic systems, about 5,530 are considered “high risk.”
The biggest obstacles to sewer connections are money and regulations. The alliance estimates that converting all septic systems would cost about $40,000 each — and would take 539 years to complete under the current rate of about 10 conversions per year, said Lisa Dennis-Perez, public communications manager for LOTT.
Another problem, she said, is that conversions are usually voluntary unless the septic system is failing. Possible solutions to converting more septic systems in a shorter period include monthly fees for property owners, for example, or creating more incentives for neighborhoods to convert.
“One of our biggest challenges is that we’re dealing with these issues one parcel at a time and not at a neighborhood scale,” she told the Olympia City Council at Tuesday’s meeting.
Thurston County cities and the LOTT Alliance have been working since 2011 to better understand challenges with septic systems.
Many of the septic systems were planned long before current regulations, said Sue Davis of Thurston County Environmental Health. Some of these septic systems are in high-density urban areas and contribute to pollution of water and shellfish habitat, she said.
“A lot of our surface waters are suffering from excess nutrients that lead to more toxic algae blooms,” Davis said Tuesday.
Olympia City Councilman Steve Langer, who is chairman of the LOTT Alliance Board of Directors, participated in a discussion on septic systems at the board’s annual retreat Sept. 27.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Langer warned of the consequences of inaction, especially when dealing with the health of the region’s water supply.
“It’s a regionwide issue,” Langer said. “This will be an important long-term concern for our community, one with significant environmental and financial implications.”
Olympia is the only Thurston County city with a septic conversion program that has dedicated staffing. The program, called “Septic to Sewer,” provides support and financial incentives for residents and neighborhoods interested in converting to Olympia’s sewer system. However, only five residences have chosen to connect to the sewer in 2014, according to the city.
Neighborhoods that wish to convert to a sewer connection must form an improvement district. A recent example is the Lacey neighborhood of Tanglewilde, where property owners have an aging septic system. The neighborhood is still going through the legal process, but under the proposal, owners of each single-family residence would pay an estimated $11,000 to connect to Lacey’s sewer system.