Enforcement begins on Wisconsin's 20-year-old onsite wastewater treatment systems law
Wisconsin revised its plumbing code in July 2000, changes that included requiring a inventory of all private onsite wastewater treatment systems in the state and implementing a maintenance tracking program.
The systems include septic systems, holding tanks and mound systems used for onsite wastewater management.
Several deadline delays over the years have limited the impact of the code, until now.
The delays are ending, according to zoning coordinator Keith Wiley.
Douglas County completed its inventory as required by October 2017, and this year it is required to be in compliance with maintenance tracking required by the law by October.
So in mid-March, Douglas County will begin notifying the owners of the more than 8,000 private onsite wastewater treatment systems that they will be required to have their systems inspected once every three years. Wiley said residents in southern Douglas County will receive notice this year with notifications going to central Douglas County in 2020 and northern Douglas County in 2021.
"The reason for that time frame is we don't want to do it later in the year," Wiley said. "We want to avoid pumping the system in late fall or winter. If you do pump then, you're likely to have your septic system freeze because you remove all that anaerobic activity that generates heat."
Systems installed since July 1, 2000, have already been required to have a maintenance plan as part of the permitting process, Wiley said. The plan had to address checking pumps and floats effluent levels and drain field conditions, ensuring locks, covers and baffles are in place, checking the sludge and scum levels in the tank and ensuring the tank is structurally sound.
However, for systems installed before the July 2000 law went into effect, the maintenance requirements will be new. Inspections must be performed by a master plumber, master plumber restricted service, journeyman or journeyman restricted service, certified POWTS inspector, certified septage service operators or registered POWTS maintainers.
Wiley said those inspections would be reported to the county by the people conducting the inspections on behalf of the owners within 30 days. He said the county is working toward a web-based portal so service providers can submit the information online.
If a system is found to be failing, Wiley said the county will give property owners up to 12 months to fix or replace the system unless there is an imminent health threat such as a system contaminating a well or dumping directly into a body of water. The goal is to give homeowners time to get financing and contractors in place to fix the problem, he said.
Money is available through the Rural Housing program and Community Development Block Grant loans for home repairs to help with the cost of replacing a septic system.
A separate fund the county had set aside years ago to help with costs is no longer available, according to Douglas County Board chairman Mark Liebaert. He said no one applied for the assistance.
Still, the new inspection requirement raises concerns for some.
Dan Corbin of Summit said he talked to a master plumber in Superior and learned the cost for an inspection would be about $500. However, he suspects the cost for him would be significantly higher because the house he bought 23 years ago, built around 1967, has a system he estimates is about 7 feet below ground.
Corbin said he doesn't have a lot of information about the system that has served his home on a hill for the last 23 years without so much "a gurgle or a blip," but he is concerned he may ordered to replace it.
"There's absolutely no records around that show how that was built," Corbin said. "I know it comes right out my basement, the floor of my basement. It's a good 7 feet down before I can even think about hitting the top of the tank."
Corbin said the system was installed when his home was built, before zoning codes were in place.
"I know that if I have to hire somebody to do that septic tank inspection, I bet it's going to cost me not only for the inspection — 500 bucks — I bet it's going to cost me at least $1,500 to hire someone to dig that thing down 7 feet so I can figure out where it is and see what the hell I have," Corbin said. "I have no idea what I have. I know I'm not the only one in that situation ... I think that's a concern for a lot of people"