An Arizona Onsite Professional and Realtor Find Common Ground

When Doug Disbrow and Susan Keown teamed up to promote septic system upgrades, homeowners and the environment were the big winners

An Arizona Onsite Professional and Realtor Find Common Ground

Kathy Mills, P.E., on the left, president of the Arizona Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, presents the Golden Septic Tank Award to Doug Disbrow and Susan Keown. (Photo courtesy of AzOWRA)

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Historically it seems like septic system installers and maintainers have been at odds with the real estate sales community. Whenever a state onsite trade association supports legislation to monitor and maintain septic systems, invariably a Realtors’ association steps in and tries to squash the effort to deal with environmental issues.

The real estate community circles the wagons and cries “big government” or “property owners’ rights” to push back on regulations they perceive will slow the sale process. They argue that addressing failed or failing onsite systems will cost the home seller and homebuyer too much money and are an unnecessary intrusion when their customers are already dealing with big down payments and mortgages.

I know why they fight inspections and regulations. Follow the money straight to their commission checks. But isn’t it the job of real estate agents to look out for the best interests of their clients? Don’t they realize it’s better to uncover a septic system issue at the time of sale rather than a few months later after the new owners have moved in? Negotiations between buyers and sellers turn into battles after the deal is done and one party or the other feels wronged. This is when the war can move to the courtroom.

I’ve seen the tension between onsite and real estate professionals play out many times over the years as states and counties consider time-of-sale inspections or required maintenance and pumping intervals.

So I was surprised and pleased to learn about an onsite system designer/inspector and a Realtor teaming up in Gila County, Arizona, (northwest of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest) to educate homeowners about the importance of repairing onsite systems for the sake of improved water quality and the environment in general. The pair has worked together for a decade to fix many onsite systems along a creek system, resulting in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delisting the waterways for nitrogen pollution.


Congratulations go out to Doug Disbrow, owner of AZ Wastewater Services, and Susan Keown, of ERA Young Realty & Investment in Payson. Their efforts to help homeowners and improve the Christopher Creek and Tonto Creek watershed recently won them the Golden Septic Tank Award from the Arizona Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association.

“They’ve really done a marvelous job,” says Jake Garrett, manager of the wastewater division for Gila County, who has worked with them every step of the way. “They are a team and decided, ‘We have a problem and we need to clean up our waters. During transfer inspections, we need to push everyone as far as we can to fix their systems.’ They used their personal persuasion powers and pushed to make this happen.”

Garrett says Disbrow and Keown were inspired to take action after attending a semester-long Master Watershed Steward class conducted by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension service. They wanted to improve implementation of time-of-sale inspection regulations after tests showed excessive nitrogen levels in the creeks. Over the years, they have convinced an estimated 30-40 homeowners to correct problems and replace systems, which brought nitrogen levels low enough to remove one impaired waterway designation.

Garrett says recent tests showed a total maximum daily load of nitrogen at less than 0.5 ppm in the creeks. By comparison, drinking water standards are 10 ppm, he says.

“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen happen in a long time, where something they did produced a result that you can see,” Garrett says. He says the changes were made “with no funding — purely on the initiative of people and the willingness of private parties to do what’s right. They knew they had a problem and this makes a big contribution toward cleaning up an environmental problem we all have.”


Consumer education opportunities have played a major role in acceptance of repairing and replacing polluting onsite systems, Disbrow says. Another factor is how much system inspectors have stepped up their game in the years since more thorough time-of-sale inspection rules went into effect in 2006, he explains.

Disbrow and Keown filled their schedules with as many speaking engagements as possible, from talking to realty groups and homeowner’s associations to meeting regularly with students in grades four through eight during STEMFest events (science, technology, engineering and math) at area schools. The latter teaching moments have given positive exposure to the onsite industry and addressed clean-water issues important to everyone in the community, he says.

“This has helped develop an awareness about wastewater and the recycling process, and it just snowballs and snowballs and snowballs. In four hours’ time, I’m talking to 150 students on an almost one-to-one basis and their parents,” Disbrow says.

“I have found the average homeowner is afraid of the county when it comes to their wastewater system. They have the idea that if I let the county know they have a problem, they’re going to make them put in a $40,000 system when 95 percent of the time we can fix what they’ve got for $2,000 to $6,000,” he continues. “They’re never educated on basic maintenance, and once they get over the fear and false information, then we can open up a dialogue.”

Work with inspectors in the county has also helped. Over the past decade, inspectors have become more thorough and are uncovering issues earlier in the transfer process, building confidence from buyers and sellers.

“The majority of inspectors in this county have stepped up their game,” he says. Before the days of more enlightened real estate agents, careful inspections weren’t encouraged.

“They called it a tank certification inspection. Pump it, fill out the paperwork and away they go. They never looked at the piping, the leach lines. So many times a new owner would be in the house for a month and he had flushing issues,” Disbrow says.

Today inspectors have better training and equipment to get the job done. Most have cameras and they scour systems looking for potential problems, he says. And the inspectors have developed good relationships with most Realtors, who now understand the importance of addressing onsite problems before home sales close, he adds.

“The smart Realtors like (Keown) have been around and understand the septic systems and are good advocates,” he says.


Four generations of Keown’s family have waded in the waters of Christopher Creek, and she has strong feelings about protecting water quality for generations to come. During 43 years in the real estate industry, she’s learned the importance of stressing clean water. And functioning septic systems are a big part of preserving the well water residents drink and the rushing waters in the creeks.

Most of the private wastewater systems in the area were built in the 1950s through 1970s and they’re failing with greater regularity, Keown explains. Some home still use steel septic tanks or cesspools, and repairs and replacements have made a big difference. When people understand the risk of ignoring these problems, they open the pocketbook, she explains.

“The real key is educating people about what’s underground,” she says. “I’m seeing a change in our area because of the education. Nobody wants to pollute their well, their only source of drinking water.” She says it helps that in Arizona “water is more valuable than gold.” All of that is part of the reason she can’t remember a single homeowner who’s been unwilling to repair a system once they are educated.

Keown says she’s always impressed with Disbrow’s ability to connect with homeowners, and she appreciates the efforts of the Arizona Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association to provide up-to-date training for the onsite industry. For her part, she likes to observe inspections for customers she represents and continues to learn about wastewater. On top of time-of-sale inspections, she also favors moves to require routine maintenance of systems.

“Doug has really raised the bar of all the inspectors here. They do a lot of training and all of the inspectors now have trackhoes and cameras and they’re checking the tanks for watertightness. They’re all doing really good inspections now, and it wasn’t always that way,” she says.


I hope this cooperative effort involving a Realtor, a system designer, inspectors, county government and a state trade association is repeated across the country in coming years. I am tired of reading headlines about real estate agents and onsite contractors working at cross purposes over an environmental issue that affects everyone. We need to rally around the cause of modernizing our decentralized wastewater infrastructure for the good of homeowners, the onsite industry and the environment.


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