By TIM CLARK, guest columnist
In my guest opinion column, “Change vs. improvement — who decides and how?” (Brown County Democrat, June 8, 2021), I introduced the need to start with an assessment of stakeholders to help identify the scope and extent of any problem before implementing a solution such as the new septic ordinance. A stakeholder assessment is supported with analysis to help identify the problems and arrive at the best decisions.
In public meetings over the past few years where changes to the septic ordinance were discussed, one of the main themes was the belief that the county may have a significant number of inadequate septic systems contributing to creek and stream contamination. This assessment dates back to 2013, and no definitive evidence has been submitted to support this claim. On water quality, water sampling is being done to help identify whether E. coli levels are because of humans or animals. If there is some percent that is caused by humans, the next challenge is to identify the number of systems that could be contributing to the problem. This would include developing mitigation strategies.
The other theme, derived from a speculation of failing systems used to support the justification to expand sewer service, was that an expansion would also support economic development and increase property values. The county’s population is expected to decline, and an expansion of sewer service requires customers. Customers with functional septic systems that are within 300 feet of a sewer line can be forced to pay for a connection along with a monthly service charge. Waivers are possible, but only temporary.
The Nashville Wastewater Strategic Plan approved in 2020 identified areas that could be serviced with sewers, and speculated, without surveying any of the residents, that there is support for expansion. Nashville has also identified an expansion of sewers to support their vision for further development — likely including more tourism-oriented endeavors. A member of the Nashville Utility Service Board also mentioned an old Nashville policy to require annexation if sewer service is provided. This is no longer a requirement, but it is an option if the town council wished. Annexation increases Nashville’s tax base through the collection of new taxes from the annexed residents. Adding more customers for sewer service may also help reduce increases in the life-cycle maintenance costs of existing customers.
What was not discussed or reinforced was that septic systems are a viable and proven technology. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that “conventional septic systems are designed to operate indefinitely if properly maintained.” (EPA 932-F-99-075). The Presby Corporation has also identified a similar finding: “If the system is designed, installed and maintained properly, there is no limit to the life expectancy of Enviro-Septic Technology.” This was confirmed by a health department employee who reinforced that “a properly installed, well maintained system that has not been abused should last the life of a home.” New permits for septic systems continue to be approved by the health department.
An industry report and assessment as to potential issues with septic systems was developed approximately 20 years ago and is referenced by the health department. The assessment identified an estimate that the average lifespan of a septic system was 25 years. This assumption was also referenced by the Brown County Regional Sewer District (BCRSD) to justify the need for a new sewer plant in Bean Blossom. A copy of the study was not made available to allow for a review of the methodology, sampling plan, analysis of variance, and feedback from any peer reviews.
Speculation as to failed systems supported the application for funding for the proposed new sewer plant in Bean Blossom. This project offers another example that reinforces the need for the application of better decision-making processes. The application by the BCRSD was submitted in June 2018. Approximately $220,000 of the $270,000 provided by the county council for planning has been spent. Land has yet to be acquired. Nashville has identified that they can provide service at less cost than building a new plant. A possible upgraded plant in Helmsburg may also be an option to provide service to Bean Blossom as well as to Lake Lemon residents. Residents from Lake Lemon — not the health department or BCRSD — identified failing systems and mobilized residents to pursue options for sewer service.
Regarding the potential for failed systems: For the sake of argument, if you assume that a certain percent of septic systems throughout the county could be inadequate, what are the next steps? Would the residents acknowledge their systems are inadequate? And specifically, how will the new ordinance address this issue? Is the operating assumption that older systems are failing and should be immediately repaired, replaced, or converted to pump and haul? Should residents be forced to connect to sewers if available? Has the ordinance made changes that will result in less competition and higher costs for repairs and replacements? Will the financial penalties in the new ordinance be used to intimidate residents to make the desired changes?
What are the problems? A few were referenced and implied above. The expected result from a change such as the new septic ordinance should be outcomes where all stakeholders benefit or, at least, are not any worse off in the long term.
Citizens can choose to expect the application of better and proven methods for identifying stakeholder needs, assessing problems, and supporting better decisions. A few basic tools were introduced through the Brown County Leader Network. Citizens can also identify their expectations and elect and support candidates who are committed to continual improvement and learning.
The start of a nonpartisan political platform is provided at the website Independent Voters of Brown County IN.
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, a volunteer with the Brown County Leader Network, and an admin for the Facebook group Brown County Matters. He has served on the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee. He can be reached at [email protected].