Rules and Regs - September 2020

NOWRA Pushes $50 Million Federal Program to Fix Failing Septic Systems

The National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association reports progress in convincing Congress to establish a grant program to help low-income Americans repair or replace failing septic systems.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works included a grant program in S.3591, otherwise known as America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020. The potential problem is that the House of Representatives’ version of the bill is not expected to include the grant program, writes Eric Casey, executive director of NOWRA, in a letter to members.

At some point, the two bills will have to be merged in order to pass Congress, and Casey is calling on NOWRA members to contact their representatives in Congress and urge them to support the grant program so that it’s included in the final bill. Originally the grant program was in a bill sponsored by Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., whom NOWRA worked with to develop the legislation.

How much the program will spend — assuming the idea makes it all the way through Congress — will be determined later in the appropriations process. As it is now, the legislation authorizes up to $50 million for 2021 and 2022. Money would be distributed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to nonprofit organizations that would make the grants.


A state appeals court ruled against four Amish men who want to be exempted from Fillmore County wastewater rules. The four have been fighting for years to avoid installing septic systems for graywater disposal. (The Amish use outhouses for human waste, which is permitted under Minnesota law.) They say the county’s rules infringed on their religious beliefs, that a septic system is a “way of the world,” which they argue they are commanded to avoid.

Instead of a septic system, the men proposed using a “mulch basin system” for the waste. But at trial last year, a witness for the county said a mulch basin would not work in Fillmore County. The appeals court said the district judge on the case properly found that a septic system was the least-restrictive way of accomplishing the government’s interest in protecting public health.

In his 2019 ruling, Judge Joseph Chase wrote that the Amish desire to not follow the wastewater rules interferes with the rights of others. “This is a situation in which the Amish cannot, despite their most sincere efforts, be separate from the world. All water is connected, and all of us, Amish and English alike, drink from the same aquifers.”


The Board of Health in Marion is considering a rule to require nitrogen-reducing wastewater systems for any new onsite system or any system identified as failing when a property is sold.

The board held a webinar in the spring to inform citizens about the proposed rule. Dot Brown of the Health Department says nitrogen in the town’s harbors has been increasing since 1991. The webinar also featured George Heufelder, who spoke about technologies that reduce nitrogen pollution. He is the retired director of the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in neighboring Barnstable County.


An agreement approved last spring transfers responsibility to investigate failing wastewater systems from the Taney County Health Department to the Taney County Environmental Services Department. As a result, Environmental Services can now legally investigate onsite system complaints.

John Soutee, project coordinator for the Environmental Services Department, says he discovered the lack of investigative authority last year. Some property owners refused to cooperate while he was investigating their systems, and as he was preparing information to forward to the district attorney, he discovered the county contract with the state Health Department did not give his department the authority to investigate complaints, reports the Branson News. Instead, authority rested with the county Health Department, which is independent of county government.

County Health Department officials told Soutee they would prefer that Environmental Services handle investigations because the county also handles onsite system permits.

New York

Erie County, near Buffalo, has more than 500 onsite system inspections backlogged in its system, and that forced some property sellers to deposit thousands of dollars in escrow to cover potential repairs if their system could not be inspected before a sale closed.

The county Health Department also recently returned to requiring inspections for homes on public water service, but it suspended those during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic because county workers had to go to people’s homes.

The county charges a $150 inspection fee, but some residents chose to hire a private inspector. Those can be $700 or more, reports WIVB News in Buffalo, but the county will reimburse people only the $150 they would have paid the county for the same service.

Brussels, Belgium

Just like North America, Europe is looking at recycled wastewater as an answer to shortages. Earlier this year, the European Parliament passed a law defining how recycled water can be used for agriculture. The intent is to allow more uses for recycled water so there is less withdrawal from groundwater, says a news release from Parliament.

This law means Europe could potentially reuse about 1.7 trillion gallons of water (6.6 billion cubic meters) by 2025 instead of the current 290 billion gallons (1.1 billion cubic meters), says Simona Bonafe, one of Italy’s representatives. That is more than half of the effluent from wastewater treatment plants, and reuse would cut groundwater withdrawals by 5%, she says in the press release.

Groundwater levels have been falling because of withdrawals for agriculture, industry and urban development. A report from the European Commission, the executive branch of European government, says at least 11% of the continent’s population has been affected by water scarcity. 


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