Septic tank ordinance passes first consideration though deemed 'lukewarm'
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of Ted Rasmussen and to clarify there are 3,120 active permitted septic tank systems in Story County.
The Story County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 to pass the first consideration of a septic tank ordinance.
The ordinance could require homeowners with septic tanks to pump them every five years, which can cost from $260 to $400.
The board expressed concern the ordinance does not directly bring the 22% of the county's septic tanks that don't have permits up to standards.
"What is in front of us today is not what I expected because it's pretty watered down, and excuse that little pun," supervisor Lauris Olson said. "This is very lukewarm compared to what I was hoping for and expecting."
The county has 3,120 active permitted septic tank systems and 22% of rural properties, or 900 properties, don't have a septic tank permit, according to the Story County Environmental Health Department.
Story County Environmental Health Department director Margarette Jaynes said in an email the most controversial of the changes is the pumping requirement.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recommends a septic tank be pumped every three to five years. Malfunctions could lead to bacteria, nitrate, phosphorous, pharmaceuticals and human pathogens entering the water systems.
Pumping the system could reveal a need for a new system but replacing the septic tank is not a requirement in the ordinance.
The ordinance was called "lukewarm" by Olson as it does not directly require the properties without permits — which were built before 1972 — to be raised to the standards of properties with permits.
A small study found of the septic tanks without a permit inspected, 100% did not have a secondary treatment. Septic tanks without secondary treatment discharge into field tiles, ditches or creeks, according to the Environmental Health Department.
Jaynes said at Wednesday's meeting pumping is "putting a bandaid on the problem" for the 900 properties without a permit. Following the advice of the Story County Board of Health, Jaynes said they did not want to target the 900 properties without permits.
"It is buying us time until those (homeowners) will put a secondary system, well an entirely new system in is what they'll have to do," Jaynes said.
The Story County Environmental Health Board also plans to do random checks of septic tanks without permits. Permit or no permit, all properties will need a routine pumping schedule. Jaynes said they may take a closer look at the homes without permits.
"I think some of them (septic tanks) will be replaced because of it," Jaynes said.
Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Lisa Heddens, the one dissenting vote, said the ordinance needs more clarity as far as timeframe.
Olson asked if the ordinance violations would result in fines, as a penalty was not written into the draft.
All ordinance violations can result in a fine, starting with a simple misdemeanor which holds a $65 minimum. Jaynes said it is rare a violation of Story County Environmental Health Department ordinances results in a fine.
"We ask instead of paying a fine, we ask that you put that money toward solving the problem," Jaynes said.
The board opened up the meeting to public comment. Board of Supervisors Chair Linda Murken said she received written comments that not every tank needs to be pumped every five years.
Brian Campbell of Ankeny, who owns Campbell Engineering and Surveying, was concerned with some inconsistencies with the distance requirements. Campbell also said he thinks the county should start with the older systems when doing inspections.
The supervisors asked Campbell to email Jaynes about the more technical issues.
Tim Gartin, an Ames City Council member, asked about the county's authority to pass an ordinance of this nature.
"My understanding is, Story would be the first of the 99 counties to do something like this," Gartin said.
Assistant Story County Attorney Ethan Anderson said the county has the authority as long as the ordinance is consistent with state law.
Ted Rasmussen, of Nevada, asked how the Department of Environmental Health came up with five years for pumping. Jaynes said that period of time is an average. Ideally, people pump every three years, she said, but five gives people more leeway.
"This is only one of the many duties the Environmental Health Department has," Murken said. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good ... The process of coming up with a perfect system is way beyond our resources, but I think we can come up with a better system."
If passed, the changes will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. For more information on the ordinance, visit storycountyiowa.gov.