It’s not uncommon to take a shower, brush your teeth or flush the toilet without giving much more thought to where the wastewater goes after it leaves your sink or bathroom. And for the most part, city sewer systems and city wastewater engineers flush that worry away by taking care of the waste management challenges for us at a centralized wastewater treatment facility. But as we all know, North Oaks is a unique community, intertwined with our natural environment and resources. It might not be surprising to learn that many homes in North Oaks are different, too—they have septic systems that treat wastewater on a property, before returning it to the environment.
So what is a septic system? Let’s break it down. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) defines
a septic system as an “underground wastewater treatment structure, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.” While North Oaks is not necessarily rural, it does incorporate many of the natural benefits of rural life, including building within the natural environment. When the City was platted, no centralized sewer or wastewater system was constructed.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) tracks septic systems in the state. According to the MPCA “More than 500,000 septic systems are in use in Minnesota, which includes 30% of the state’s households. Septic systems treat approximately 25% of wastewater generated in the state.” There are several types of septic systems, but most include two main components: the septic tank and a drain field. Modern septic tanks are usually either made of plastic or concrete, are fully contained and permit separation of liquids and solids in the wastewater stream by creating a space where solids are removed by gravity or settling. The solids either degrade through a natural process of microbial breakdown, are pumped out of the tank regularly or a combination of the two. Liquids spill over out of the septic tank into a drain field. In Minnesota, drain fields may be at grade, a mound or a trench. Waste treatment continues in the soil, as bacterial and fungi continue to break down chemicals and compounds in the wastewater stream.
How do we ensure that something as complex as wastewater treatment occurs correctly in so many distributed septic systems and without polluting the local environment? That’s where state and local laws come in. Unfortunately, the State of Minnesota did not enact a law specifically regulating septic systems until 1994. That law is called the Individual Sewage Treatment Systems (ISTS) Act (Minn. Stat. §§ 115.55 and 115.56). It requires all new construction and replacement septic systems to meet minimum standards. That means that pretty much anything went, within reason, before that time. Much of North Oaks building and development fall into that timeframe. North Oaks further enacted an ordinance (Title V of the North Oaks Code, Chapter 51: Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems). A copy of that code can be found on the North Oaks City website (cityofnorthoaks.com). The Code requires certain inspections and compliance for septic systems and sewers in new construction and required that septic systems be pumped and inspected every two years. However, some North Oaks septic systems, while they may not be experiencing imminent failure, do not meet the minimum state laws. One troubling example is a cesspool.
Most people probably know the alternate definition of a cesspool: “a disgusting or corrupt place.” While cesspools that handle household wastewater may also be disgusting, the main issue is that they do not adequately treat raw wastewater before releasing it into the environment. By definition, a cesspool or a cesspit usually does not contain a bottom (other than earth or maybe brick) and leaches raw or untreated sewage into the surrounding environment. This can lead to local water quality issues, including chemicals entering the groundwater, that are harmful to fish and aquatic life, plants, and even humans. Most homes that have septic systems or cesspools also have wells, and the risk of short-circuiting the intended treatment could be illness or chemical ingestion.
Local code in North Oaks requires septic systems that are experiencing imminent failure to be replaced immediately. But the current code (as of Sept. 1, 2019) does not address poorly designed systems that could be equally dangerous to humans and the environment we hold dear. Our current City Council recognized this and are addressing it. A public hearing on a new Point of Sale septic ordinance was heard at City Council in August. In the upcoming September City Council meeting, Council will vote on an updated ordinance that would require all septic systems in North Oaks to comply with Minnesota Law before the home could be sold or transferred to a new owner.
September is Septic System Month. Learn about your septic system and how to care for it. As a homeowner, we have both the joy and responsibility of ownership. Sometimes, it’s the simple joy of observing the wildlife on our properties or around them. Other times, it’s taking on the responsibility of protecting that wildlife and our environment by learning about our home. Does your home have a sewer or septic? Don’t know? Call the City of North Oaks to find out. Or, better yet, go to City Hall and review the file they keep on your property. That’s the best way to learn about your home. Further, if you are new to septic system care (or perhaps have not had time yet to learn), there are many resources out there to make it easy to learn. Take time in September, official “septic month” of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to read a bit. Visit the following web sites for more information.
—Andrew C. Hawkins, Commissioner, North Oaks Natural Resources Commission