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Travis County commissioners facing septic problems

Monday, October 11, 2010 by Michael Kanin

According to a local engineer Steve Wenzel, up to 90 percent of Travis County’s septic systems may be in violation of state regulations. Whether or not his testimony is accurate, Travis’ Commissioners Court continues to see variance requests from property owners who have systems that violate the rules.

The latest of these came last week. Faced with the pitfalls of setting a precedent in an area where they have limited authority, the three commissioners in attendance cast two consecutive unanimous votes denying relief for two homeowners. The cases came forward as the county continues a major review of its septic permits.

Thanks to the limits of the power held by Texas counties, the court will have to take each of the cases in turn. This despite the fact that at least one commissioner thinks that septic systems are not the appropriate means to deal with Travis County’s sewage.


“This is strictly a problem of an urbanizing county in which septic is becoming less and less of an appropriate option,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt.


The first case involved a septic field that was designed to accommodate a smaller home than actually sits on the lot in question. Though 60 to 80 gallons worth of extra space would bring the unit up to code for the house as it is currently configured, the owners of the northwest Austin home would have to entirely rebuild it thanks to rule changes that have come into effect since its 2006 permitting.


County staff urged the court to reject the variance. “It has the effect of taking the rules and kind of throwing them out the window,” said Travis Transportation and Natural Resources’ Stacey Scheffel.    


Scheffel also made it clear that, should the homeowners elect to not rebuild their septic system, the county would be unlikely to undertake any enforcement measures unless it sprang a leak. The issue could, however, cause problems in a real estate sale.


In the second case, the court heard about a septic drain field that was built dangerously close to a fractured rock formation — a situation that could cause groundwater contamination concerns. At the time of its 2000 construction, Texas law did not yet prohibit that sort of configuration. The drain field has since been in place without a county operating license or a proper permit.


Scheffel told commissioners that the two homeowners facing major repairs after the court’s action wouldn’t be the only Travis County residents in that particular boat. “Originally, when we started looking at systems that may be operating in violation without license to operate, there were initially 2000 (units). We are down to 1200,” she said. “So that means that a fair amount of folks have gone in and done costly repairs … to their onsite wastewater systems in order to comply with current standards.”


Eckhardt added that Texas law is slowly creeping toward allowing counties to step in on the issue. “State legislation has allowed us to be more proactive than we have been allowed to be in the past,” she said.


She noted that the legislature has come back with ever-toughening septic rules in recent sessions. “Even the State of Texas recognizes that a drain field or a septic in an urbanizing county (is not appropriate),” she said. “The drain field needs to be larger than was once thought, and if you need a larger drain field that means you need a larger lot, which means you probably can’t do septic where we have done it in the past.”


She also cited recent action in the Gilleland Creek Watershed. “With (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) making the findings that it did regarding the water quality there (we) were able to go in and do a combined TCEQ, Travis County, City of Austin sweep through the Gilleland Creek Watershed looking for septics that are not up to speed and may be contributing to the e. coli and coliform in (the water).”


Still, the county’s power is limited. “We do not have the authority to prevent the use of septic tanks in a more stringent fashion than state law allows,” said Eckhardt. 


Eckhardt added that the problem could be compounded as more and more septic systems are ruled unsatisfactory. “We need to find revenue sources to help folks pay for centralized sewer,” she said. “There are a lot of poor folks in our county. … Thirty percent of the residents in our county are under 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. … When we find out that their septic is failing, they’re going to need help to either replace their septic or put their neighborhood on a centralized sewer system.”


She specifically cited the Northridge Acres, a neighborhood on the Williamson/Travis County line that has seen widespread septic issues for at least a decade.

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