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A Stinky Business

Growing up on a farm situated on Osborne Clay in the Red River Valley, we learned early in life that rural waste management can indeed be a stinky business.

A septic tank and field had been dutifully established using existing standards when the farm home was placed on a new foundation and indoor plumbing installed in the mid-1960s. But over the next few years, it became clear that while having a flush toilet was a major convenience over the old “cash and carry” method of sewage disposal, the septic field concept wasn’t designed for the heavy clay soils dominating the region.

Despite the presence of crushed rock, the effluent was unable to seep away to be cleansed as it moved through the soil like it could in more permeable soil types. So it simply found its way to the surface to create a swampy, smelly lawn.

The local plumber, an extended family member, decided there was no reason why the household effluent couldn’t be piped out to the pig barn’s pit, where it would join the hog waste used to fertilize the farm’s fields. It was a brilliant idea that worked just fine until a pebble lodged in the backflow valve and the family awoke one midsummer night to the smell of pig manure several inches deep in the basement.

The extended family member was forgiven – in time. And a new system was installed, this time with an ejector that sprayed the effluent into a treed area behind the house. The trees liked it just fine. In reality, it wasn’t much different than those effluent irrigation systems we hear being promoted – just on a smaller scale.

Fast forward 40 years and nothing has changed much about how well septic fields work in clay-based soils. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy – and definitely not a cheap fix to the rural waste management issue. We’ve heard reports of property owners quoted costs of $20,000 to $26,000 in order to comply with the province’s new Onsite Wastewater Management Systems regulation.

It is not that this new regulation is requiring property owners to install septic fields; only that it is forbidding the continued use of sewage ejectors. No one, at least not so far, has stepped up to finance a province-wide sewage collection and disposal system, although it is arguable that is the most effective way to ensure waste is handled responsibly.

The next most accessible alternative for property owners is the septic field.

Municipal officials have quite rightly pointed out as recently as last week’s Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention that the logic behind this move is faulty and the science supporting it is scant.

Has anyone determined the relative environmental soundness of a properly situated ejector, in which the effluent is dispersed over an area where it is exposed to the sun and rapid biological breakdown, compared to a poorly functioning septic field in which effluent is pooling on the surface?

We’ve seen the occasional flood in this province over the years. Which system is more likely to contribute to groundwater contamination?

Taking an arbitrary approach to ban one system and indirectly favour another without fully understanding the implications is almost guaranteed to haunt the provincial government in the future. It is reminiscent of the province’s move to regulate nitrogen in manure applications in the 1990s without consideration for how it pertained to phosphorus.

We know how that turned out. Farmers invested heavily in full compliance with the regulation only to be told a decade later they would have to reinvest and face more stringent regulations because phosphorus levels were rising to unsustainable levels in key hog production zones.

What will happen to those property owners who make the investment and convert to septic fields if the province decides up the road they aren’t working well enough to protect the environment either?

A far more practical approach would be to set maximum tolerances and standards for onsite waste water management without dictating the system. Setbacks could be required for ejectors from residences or wetlands. Perhaps the ejector range should be fenced off to reduce the risk of wildlife, livestock or human traffic spreading contaminants.

Inspections could be a condition of a property’s sale, just as used vehicles must undergo a safety assessment before they can be registered by their new owners.

These are all points that could be examined with a view to improving a system that has worked for thousands of rural properties for generations – with no evidence of being an environmental hazard.

Simply having a septic field in place is no guarantee of environmental safety. Likewise, there are likely ejector systems in operation that pose an environmental threat.

Provincial regulators need to focus on the objective, which is reducing the risk of environmental contamination, rather than targeting the specific methods used to accomplish it. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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