Sewage system standards | Acreage owners raise stink over rules to protect streams and sensitive areas from effluent
EDMONTON — Will and Marion Pattison weren’t expecting a $25,000 bill for a high-end septic tank when they sold their home quarter to their daughter and carved off a small acreage nearby.
But that’s what the family from Kingman, Alta., paid to comply with Alberta’s rural plumbing code and obtain their acreage permit.
“I think it begs the question, why are they insisting on this?” said Will Pattison. “It’s a pretty onerous requirement.”
Alberta’s Private Sewage Systems standards require septic pump-outs to be at least 90 metres from a property line. They must also be a certain distance from a water course, a water source or a building.
However, it’s the regulations about distance to boundary lines that is causing county residences and councillors the most grief, said Camrose County reeve Don Gregorwich.
“It’s really frustrating and we’re having a lot of residents in the county complain to us,” Gregorwich said.
The regulations have put county staff in a difficult spot.
Acreages must be at least nine acres to fit a pump-out system into the boundary requirements, but the county doesn’t want acreages to be larger than five acres so that it can limit the amount of agricultural land gobbled up by rural development.
“For the county and the farmers, that’s a waste of good farmland,” said Gregorwich.
“To get around the boundary rules, you have to make the acreages larger. That adds up to quite a chunk of farmland taken out of use because of boundary line requirements.”
Pattison said it doesn’t make sense for the long-term preservation of farmland to carve 10 acre parcels of land out of quarter sections just to meet an arbitrary provincial regulation.
“If you do that long term, that is a disturbing trend.”
Gregorwich introduced a resolution at the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties convention in November to ask the province to study the quality of effluent leaving septic tanks of open discharge private sewage systems to see if existing setbacks can be reduced.
“We maintain, or believe, the effluent coming from septic systems is not as harmful as is claimed and the issue needs to be reviewed,” he told the convention.
The resolution was defeated.
Gregorwich said he plans to reword the resolution to ask the province to reduce the distance a pump-out can be from the boundary line and have it discussed at the AAMD&C’s spring convention.
“For retiring farmers who want to carve off a section of the home quarter, the new rules mean it can take up to 10 acres,” he said.
“Open discharge is not good if it’s in a subdivision. We’re not arguing with that, but when their closest neighbour is a mile away in any direction, it flies in the face of common sense. When a retired farm couple comes in to ask for subdivision, the first thing that happens is they’re hit with a $40,000 bill to change the system that has probably been operating well for them for a long time.”
The alternative is to install septic mounds or septic fields, which can cost $20,000 to $40,000.
“The bad thing is fields are not fail proof. They fail fairly often, even after the test holes are dug and the soil is analyzed. It has not proven to be successful,” he said.
Gregorwich wondered what is wrong with continuing to use the simple, inexpensive septic pump-out systems that cost $5,000 to $7,000 and have worked across the Prairies for years.
“Why trap a person into a system that doesn’t work?” he said. “There’s been a lot of resistance in Camrose County.”
It was a combination of boundary lines and soil conditions that wouldn’t allow Pattison to install a septic field. Instead, he was required to install a more expensive $25,000 “at grade system,” a sophisticated septic system with four holding tanks, an aeration pump and a 150 ft. long pump-out that discharges evenly over the entire discharge pump.
“The clarity of the water at pump-out is quite good,” he said.
Pattison’s discharge line is tucked among the trees and covered in wood chips to reduce freezing.
“I would hate to put it out in the open.”
Pattison and Gregorwich agree there must be rules to ensure that the effluent from septic pump-outs doesn’t go directly into streams or environmentally sensitive areas, but they wish there was more flexibility around the rules.
Brent Hoyland, assistant chief administrative officer with Flagstaff County, said his municipality prefers smaller acreages but has recently changed the rules to allow 10-acre acreages to accommodate the tougher septic pump-out rules.
Hoyland said he understands why fields and other septic systems are required in multi-lot subdivisions, but doesn’t believe they’re needed in sparsely populated counties such as Flagstaff. As well, he said residents who have installed the pricey fields or mounds have complained they don’t work well.
Heather Koszuba, a communications official with Alberta Municipal Affairs, said the regulations are in place to reduce potential risk to public health and safety and the environment.
A private sewage task force has been established to look at private sewage systems, and boundary line setbacks are just one of the issues it has discussed. Any changes that are approved wouldn’t take place until next year.
Alf Durnie, chief inspector for private sewage systems with the municipal affairs department, said his office could issue variances on the boundary line setback. He estimated it has issued 80 such variances in the past year.
Durnie said county officials know about the variance option, but he doesn’t know if they pass on the information to landowners.
“They may well have their own reasons why they don’t want to make it a regular occurrence,” he said.
Gregorwich said he’s an example of the lack of knowledge about variances. Even though he’s reeve of his county, he only recently learned about the option.
“I’m an example of a guy that doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Durnie said options such as mounds and holding tanks are available in areas where fields and pump-outs don’t work.