In 2021 homeowners on the Key Peninsula began receiving letters informing them they were required to have their septic systems inspected. The two-year process to notify all homeowners in the community will be completed at the end of June.
The environmental health code adopted by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in 2010 and updated in 2018 required inspections for more than a decade, said Meghan Whidden, environmental health program manager for the department.
The code requires complex systems to be inspected annually, and those inspections have been carried out since 2010. Moderate risk systems are supposed to be inspected every three years, but there was no system in place to notify homeowners until recently.
“The department started notifying homeowners with less complex systems living in environmentally sensitive areas that have impaired water quality in 2020.
“Eventually we want to reach everyone, but right now we are working on areas that need it the most,” Whidden said. “The purpose is to prevent exposure to improperly treated wastewater and to help preserve the longevity of a system.”
Lake Tapps was the first community to be notified, a process that started in 2020 and took a year to complete. Whidden said that more than 90% of systems are now up to date and there have been no toxic algae blooms or closures due to high bacterial counts.
The Key Peninsula is a high priority for the inspection program because it is surrounded by a marine recovery area, with shellfish protection districts at Rocky Bay, Burley Lagoon and Filucy Bay as well as public recreational areas used for swimming and clamming.
“I know there are people who don’t want to do the inspections because they are afraid of what we might find, for instance if they have had a system for 30 years and have never had an inspection,” Whidden said.
“There is financial assistance for the inspection, pumping or repairs for qualified homeowners. And if a system needs to be replaced there are low-interest loans available through Craft3 and USDA Rural Development.”
Craft3 is a private nonprofit community development financial institution in Oregon and Washington that provides loans to businesses, homeowners and nonprofits, especially those unable to access traditional financing.
“The Craft3 people are especially helpful, and very few people are turned down,” Whidden said.
Notification letters are sent about two and a half months before the inspection is due. A reminder is sent about a month after the inspection due date, and a final letter is sent if there is no inspection. If an inspection is not completed the department places a certificate of noncompliance on the title. The property cannot be sold or refinanced until that is resolved, which involves an inspection and payment of a rescission fee that currently is $815.
Whidden said that most people on a city sewer system pay $100 or more a month. A septic inspection typically costs $200 to $400 every three years, and a maintained system should last decades. “We do recommend that you shop around because some charge a lot more than others,” she said. “This is preventative maintenance, and it will pay good dividends. The cheapest septic system you will ever have is the one you have in the ground right now.”
Septic systems are designed to move waste from the house to a tank where solids settle to the bottom, scum rises to the top and the liquid between goes to the drain field, Whidden said. Over time some solids will build up and need to be pumped out. If solids are not pumped — typically every 3 to 5 years — they can enter the drain field, which can cause the field to fail. A clogged filter can cause the system to back up into the home. Cracks in the tank, if identified early, can be patched so that the tank can last longer.
“Even if they aren’t happy about it, people have by and large been participating,” Whidden said. “The potential for improvement in the water quality is real. The situation on the KP is different from Lake Tapps — the body of water is larger and there is more agriculture and wildlife — so the results may be slower than what we saw at Lake Tapps, but we should see improvement.”
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