Across Southwest Colorado, nearly 20,000 septic systems that were previously not subject to inspections are now required to be reviewed, and already, health officials say the benefits are being noticed.
“It didn’t take us very long to see problems that would not have been noticed under previous versions of the regulations,” said Brian Devine, water and air quality program manager for San Juan Basin Public Health.
Previously, the health department didn’t require people selling their homes to have septic systems inspected to make sure everything was in working order. But earlier this year, new regulations went into effect.
Now, homeowners within San Juan Basin Public Health’s jurisdiction must have their septic systems inspected by a certified professional before selling the property. Devine said there are an estimated 19,000 permits for septic systems in the department’s coverage area, which spans Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties.
Since taking effect, Devine said the vast majority of property owners are following the new rules and taking care of any deficiencies in their systems. Most problems are minor, Devine said, but the inspections have brought to light more major issues that pose risks to public health.
Some systems were no longer watertight and were spilling untreated wastewater directly into the soil and groundwater, Devine said. Inspectors have also found a couple illegal systems that were installed years ago. In many instances, the current homeowners were unaware of the situation.
“There are thousands and thousands of systems out there,” Devine said. “And there’s a lot of ways they can go wrong.”
Stacy Alridge with Certified Professional Inspections was certified as an inspector about a year ago. He said the main thing he hears from residents is they don’t know anything about their system.
“There’s been so many septic tanks left unmonitored, not taken care of and even abused,” he said. “It’s out of sight, out of mind or don’t know, don’t care. But with the new regulations, it makes people care.”
Most residents understand the repairs are a benefit to both human health and the environment, Alridge said.
“If you have a leaking septic, it’s not only gross, it’s not healthy,” he said.
Devine said residents have two options when a problem is found with a septic system before being able to sell the house: make the necessary repairs, which the health department prefers, or attach a condition to the sale that the new homeowner will fix the system.
The new regulations are having a discernible impact on the La Plata County Assessor’s Office, said county Assessor Carrie Woodson.
Each septic system is built for a specific number of bedrooms in a home. But over the years, some homeowners add on bedrooms, sometimes by converting intended office spaces or even closets, which puts them out of compliance during the health department’s inspections.
Then, as a result, the Assessor’s Office has to get involved and verify just how many bedrooms are in a home, which affects appraisals. What constitutes a bedroom is laid out in the American National Standards Institute guidelines, Woodson said.
“People call and ask us … what to do,” she said. “I recommend they call a contractor. … People claim ignorance, but you can’t just add a bedroom. There are rules on that.”
Woodson said the health department’s new regulations have added another time-intensive task for her staff.
“We get somewhat roped in,” she said. “We don’t have time in our schedules … but bottom line, we’re the only official record, and we want our records to be correct. … And, this is to all of our benefit to make sure septic systems are working.”
Indeed, Devine said there is cost associated with the new regulations. But many times, repairs are a result of homeowners not performing regular maintenance on the system over the years. And, he said, since the new rules went into effect, there are more than 40 inspectors in the area, which has brought down the cost.
“The benefits we get far outweigh the costs,” he said.