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Toughen County Septic Tank Law

Once upon a time, there was a fantasy that Bernalillo County sat on a huge underground reservoir the size of Lake Michigan, enough clean water to support our community for generations to come.

Roads were built, and houses followed. This region’s population expanded, and rain and snowfalls were generous enough to make us forget that we lived in a desert.

And then, in the 1990s, research brought home a sobering new reality: There’s no ocean of fresh water under our homes. Our groundwater resources are limited and at risk from population growth and increasingly severe drought conditions.

That new reality motivated leaders from our business community, government and the scientific community to work together to develop strategies for protecting and preserving the water we do have. Bernalillo County responded by adopting a strong and comprehensive ordinance to protect groundwater from known sources of pollution, including household septic systems.

Evidence is clear that household septic systems are the No. 1 threat to clean water in New Mexico and in Bernalillo County. But what we don’t know is which septic tanks in Bernalillo County are leaking, contaminating our water supply.

Last year, the county’s wastewater ordinance was gutted by removing a deadline for inspections and upgrades. I have proposed a reasonable compromise that calls for the oldest septic systems in unincorporated Bernalillo County to undergo inspection once they’re 30 years old.

Most systems are not designed to work for more than 25 years, so it’s important to focus our attention on the most likely polluters – approximately 450 systems in unincorporated county that are that are at least 30 years old, located on lots of three-quarters of an acre or less. My proposal would require that those systems be inspected and those that are found to be failing or on the edge would have to be repaired or replaced.

If a septic system passes the inspection, then the property owner is not required to do anything. The next inspection would be required five years later.

If the septic system is failing, the ordinance would require the homeowner to fix or replace the system.

Private, certified evaluators would conduct the inspections, and property owners would be responsible for the $300-$400 cost of inspection. To be clear, this proposal would cover only unincorporated parts of Bernalillo County.

We recognize that the cost of the inspection and the cost of repairs may create a hardship for some homeowners, so we have been working to identify county, state and federal funds that can be used to help residents with the cost of complying with the new rules. Yet the costs of not addressing failing septic tanks are high, a point brought home to me by two county residents who have private or community wells. What happens, they ask, when a neighbor’s septic system pollutes their well? It means they have to purchase a water storage tank and have clean water delivered to their house. Or they haul the water themselves by truck.

We’ve learned two things over the past few decades: First, our water situation isn’t getting any better and we have to do everything possible to conserve and protect our groundwater if we hope to have a future for this community. Second, we’ve learned that preventing pollution is much more cost-effective than cleaning up contamination after it has occurred. Lessons from Carnuel and the jet fuel spill at Kirtland Air Force Base have taught us that it’s much better for our future and for our wallets if we stop pollution early.

Unfortunately it’s too late for some areas. We’ve seen evidence of water contamination in Carnuel and the North and South Valleys, supported by objective reports from the New Mexico Environment Department and leading water researchers.

But we can stop this pollution before it gets any worse. Amending Bernalillo County’s wastewater ordinance will be one small but significant step in protecting our precious water resources for our children and for future generations.