Two years ago, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)—formerly the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC)—put a rule on the books that prohibited property owners from discharging effluent from water softeners or reverse osmosis (RO) units into their septic systems.
Harming rural residents
The ruling was apparently fueled by belief that salts used in water softening systems—or the hydraulic load of the additional water used—would make septic systems fail, even though TCEQ had no scientific studies to back up this contention, said Debbie Cunningham, executive director of the Texas Water Quality Association (TWQA).
“The ones who were hurt most by this ruling were people who lived out in the rural areas, and our members who provided them with water softening systems,” Cunningham said. “Financially, it was very difficult for people who were selling water softeners in rural areas.”
The TWQA won Gov. Rick Perry’s approval of legislation that effectively removed the restriction last year.* But installers of water softening equipment still wonder why TCEQ imposed the restriction in the first place?
It’s a question dealers and water treatment industry officials have asked themselves in a number of states where they have had to fight similar battles in recent years—New Jersey, Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, Massachusetts and Florida.
The root of the problem
On behalf of dealers, the national Water Quality Association (WQA) did win a mid-2002 victory in convincing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to reaffirm and re-release a fact sheet it had issued stating the discharge of softener wastes isn’t harmful to septic systems (see: www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/Pubs/625R00008/fs3.pdf). While that may have stunted efforts to restrict softener discharge into septic tanks, it hasn’t eliminated them.
“This is truly a grassroots movement,” said Peter Censky, executive director of the Lisle, Ill.-based WQA. “It’s nothing being imposed by the USEPA or state government.”
Rather, he said, the restrictions appear to take root at the local level, and then “percolate up” to the state level. Trouble is, a growing number of government jurisdictions appear to be pursuing septic discharge restrictions sans scientific backing and without consulting with water treatment professionals or the general public.
In fact, water treatment dealers say they often don’t even find out about the bans until after they’ve been imposed. New regulations are often buried in massive legislative proposals, making them difficult to pinpoint until it’s too late.
“There has to be better notification of people who are affected by these regulations,” said Archie Thomas, owner of Kinetico of Montana in Missoula. He noted, for instance, that his local newspaper reaches only a fraction of his rural customer base, making it difficult for people to be aware of these developments. “I do not see an effective notification process in place to keep the public informed of regulation changes,” he said, adding that laws should be changed to ensure that the general public and the water industry are notified before new regulations are developed.
Growing bedroom communities
Whatever its cause, the sporadic and apparently random efforts to impose septic discharge restrictions are laying the foundation for public relations problems for the water treatment, septic and waste disposal industries.
“Over 40 percent of all households in the United States are on septic systems,” Censky said. “Soon, within a few years, that number will be over 50 percent.” The reason, he said, is the continuing migration of urban residents to rural America. “We’re not talking about poor people in poor homes,” he said. “We’re talking about wealthy people—doctors, lawyers.” People, in other words, who won’t stand for water quality problems or waste disposal hassles after they’ve just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building their dream home in the country.
As a result, Censky said, well drillers, water softener dealers and septic system manufacturers have a collective responsibility to put aside their differences and work together at state and local levels. “The water treatment industry is part of a chain of water custody for these people,” he explains. “This chain starts with the well driller and gets passed to the water treatment industry then to the onsite treatment and disposal industry.”
Meeting of the minds
In an effort to bring the various sides together, Censky met in December with representatives of the Edgewater, Md.-based National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (www.nowra.org); the National Precast Concrete Association (www.precast.org), of Indianapolis, and the National Ground Water Association (www.ngwa.org), of Westerville, Ohio.
The good news, Censky said, was that representatives from the three associations told him they weren’t aware of any organized efforts to impose septic discharge restrictions on the water conditioning industry. They also indicated a willingness to cooperate with the WQA on this issue, he said.
“We’re looking at possibly doing joint research and setting up a task force that can come up with a resolution of the problem and find out what’s driving the grassroots push,” Censky said.
Cooperation between each industry involved in water well drilling, treatment and disposal is critical, he said: “We have to stop finger pointing. Let’s sit down and re-frame the whole issue. We all have a part to play. If there is a concern or an issue (with softener discharge), then it behooves both us and the septic people to do some science, to find out what the issue is, and design a solution.”
Until that happens, however, dealers need to safeguard their business base. In fact, Censky said dealers should contact WQA headquarters at (630) 505-0160 whenever they hear about efforts to impose septic discharge restrictions within their local service areas. WQA needs input from dealers to help it identify the names of the state or local agencies that plan to implement septic discharge restrictions in their local areas. Dealers can also help by providing WQA with information about the code sections or regulations that are being used to justify such restrictions.
Censky said WQA officials act on the information it receives from dealers and, where necessary, fly out to meet with government officials to make the association’s position known. “Many times,” Censky said, “we’ve been able to head off these regulations.” But the key is to alert WQA at the first hint of trouble, he said.
In the meantime, however, dealers say they find it advantageous to simply keep their heads down since many local jurisdictions don’t have the resources to enforce more stringent septic discharge restrictions that may be on the books.
About the author
Jeff Crider, formerly public relations manager for USFilter Corp., is a San Diego-based freelance writer specializing in water quality issues.