Lowe Farm-area resident Dennis Friesen ran into a nasty new wrinkle to selling rural properties when he put his farmyard on the market last autumn.
The farmer and autobody shop owner was planning to subdivide his yard from his farmland and sell it so he could move his car repair business to a better location in the nearby village.
That’s when he realized the impact of new provincial regulations requiring him to decommission the sewage ejector installed in the mid-1960s when his parents built the house.
The first ballpark quote over the phone floored him. It was $20,000. “I said if this was going to be that much I just wasn’t going to sell this property,” said Friesen. “I was pretty ripped off.”
But his realtor urged him to get other quotes. Another backhoe operator, who actually came to the farm to size up the prospective job, said a septic field could be installed for $8,000.
So the property’s back on the market, said Friesen. But he’s still parting with $8,000 for something he’s unconvinced is necessary. The ejector served this farm property for over 40 years without a single problem, he says.
And he questions the effectiveness of a septic field in the Red River Valley’s clay soils.
“That’s the part that bothers me about this whole thing,” he said. “We’re being forced to put in these fields yet I feel, in the end, they are no better than our ejector system.”
Friesen is among untold numbers of rural Manitobans who’ll be picking up the tab for an expensive sewage upgrade whenever they move. Late last September, the province announced that amendments to its Onsite Waste Water Regulation would include,
“We’re being forced to put in these fields yet I feel, in the end, they are no better than our ejector system.”
– DENNIS FRIESEN, LOWE FARM
over time, phasing out sewage ejectors across the province by requiring they be replaced with a septic field whenever a property is sold.
RURAL PROPERTY VALUES
The president of the Manitoba Real Estate Association (MREA) is waiting to see what this means for rural property sales as more homes are listed in spring.
“Initially, it has certainly created some difficulties for property owners and property purchasers,” said Tom Fulton, noting some were in the midst of closing a deal last fall when the change was enacted.
The MREA is worried about what impact this will have on the value of rural properties, especially lower-value properties, Fulton said. Owners could have a problem if the cost to switch over to a septic field turns out to be a substantial portion of the value of the property.
“Buyers are just not going to be interested in shouldering that cost,” he said.
What has outraged municipal leaders is that, in addition to the burden of cost this places on rural property owners, the province has never tabled any scientific evidence to back its claims that sewage ejectors are harmful to the environment and pose a risk to human health.
The Manitoba Co-operator tried to find relevant studies through university networks and the National Research Council, but those efforts failed to locate any research done on this issue – anywhere.
WHERE’S THE SCIENCE?
Provincial officials admit their decision to ban the ejector was not based on evidence produced from a specific study. Nor are there plans to conduct any. They say it should be self-evident that uncontrolled release of raw sewage containing pathogens raises a health risk.
“The science on this isn’t new,” said Mike Gilbertson, director of environmental services with Manitoba Conservation. “What is new is our assessment of the acceptability of that risk both for human health and the environment.”
The key element driving the provincial decision is that sewage ejectors are an “uncontrolled release” of water containing nutrients and pathogens, he said, adding that the ban is consistent with government’s direction on other fronts in trying to limit things entering the environment in an uncontrolled manner.
“Over time, it’s the government’s objective to raise the standard for protection of human health and the environment. This was seen as their next step in doing that.”
The lack of clear scientific evidence galls landowners like Friesen.
“How can they do this to us without having done any research?” he says. “Isn’t the main concern that the sewage doesn’t get into municipal ditches and then the water washes it into rivers and lakes?”
He’d like to be shown evidence that sewage ejectors cause a problem. So would a whole lot of municipal leaders.
This move makes absolutely no sense in sparsely populated areas like theirs, says reeve of the Rural Municipality of Pipestone Ross Tycoles. The rule should never have been applied province-wide, given the range of population levels, settlement patterns and soil conditions.
“Out here, you’ll have houses two and three miles apart,” he said.
In the southeast, the ejector ban will effectively stall rural population growth, predicts R. M. of Stanley Reeve Art Petkau. The influx of new families to his area has, until now, been accommodated on one-acre lots. The new rules bring an end to that because any new housing lots must now be a minimum of two acres in size in order to install a septic field.
LAND USE CONTRADICTION
Petkau says the move contradicts provincial land use policy objectives. “This is going to chew up a whole lot more land,” he said. “We have agriculture on our case that we’re using high-quality land for housing and residential areas and then, on the other hand, another department is saying you’ve got to use twice as much land as you used before.”
Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) president Doug Dobrowolski says municipal leaders just don’t buy the province’s argument that ejectors pose a health risk. AMM has argued that waste from ejectors is treated by natural sunlight, with the liquid evaporating and remaining solids absorbed through natural filtration.
“This type of system has long been recognized – again in certain areas with the right soil conditions – as an acceptable, effective, natural way of treating and disposing of domestic waste,” he writes.
A literature review done by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that looked at studies into the effect of waste water spread through effluent irrigation show bacteria surviving applications are sensitive to ultraviolet rays and desiccation from wind and heat. Analysis of waste water from a secondary lagoon in Western Canada was consistently negative for bacteria such as salmonella, shigella and staphylococcus.
Dobrowolski said the province has not shared any reports nor literature reviews used as a basis for assessing the risk they say this poses to human health.
Municipal leaders’ suspicions were only deepened when representatives of the Health Department were absent in a late-January meeting between AMM executive and deputy ministers with Conservation, Water Stewardship and Agriculture.
“This has been sold as a public health issue, yet the Health Department wasn’t even at that meeting,” said Dobrowolski.
So what happens next? AMM is waiting to hear what government might offer in terms of helping landowners pay for ejector removal costs, Dobrowolski said. Compensation to landowners, in addition to reconsidering the province-wide ban, was AMM’s “ask” at the January meeting.
“We’ve asked for compensation for people to convert over,” he said. “And we need at least 50 per cent of the costs to go back to the homeowners. A token $200 on a $28,000 bill won’t do anything.” AMM also wants the province to provide financial help to municipalities for the lagoon upgrades that will be necessary as more rural residents hook up to municipal systems.
A spokesperson for the province would only say that discussions with the AMM remain ongoing.