The Myth (And True Cost to Homeowners) Of Sewage Treatment Facilities

Fueled by the internet and personal computers, America experienced one of the highest economic growth periods in history from 1990 to 2005, and with that growth came development.  Farmland, fields and forests were being purchased around the country at record rates in order to build new homes and businesses.  Of course, most of these areas were beyond the range of existing sewage treatment facilities, and, rather than wait for sewage plants to be built, most were built with septic systems. 

Unfortunately, some areas of the country were—and still are—operating on old, outdated septic regulations and requirements (and many believe septic systems are inferior and temporary); coupled with the rapid building pace, many of the systems originally built were doomed to fail.  Now, there are entire developments with failing systems, and the homeowners are pushing hard to get a treatment plant built. Citizens, however, need to think very carefully before going with this solution.  Today’s septic systems are one of the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions available, but the general public is being kept in the dark on this because the profits are far greater with the big-pipe.    

Most think sewer plants are constructed to protect the public’s health/environment.  At one time, this was true; however, now treatment facilities have turned into a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, often driven by greed, not need.  Engineering firms profit in the millions to design and build these facilities, developers get rights to build more (and bigger) homes in an area, and the government bodies gain more tax dollars and revenue from those monthly fees.   
And these projects are sold to the public by using a simple business tactic: discredit the competition.  People are told septic systems are pollution hazards, extremely expensive, and only last a few years.  At the same time, they portray their product as a cost-effective, modern marvel that will solve everyone’s problems.  By the time they are done, only a fool would want to stay with a septic system.     

This information, however, is either wildly exaggerated or an out-right lie.  Septic systems are no longer the cesspools of the early 1900s; today’s systems will treat wastewater better than a treatment facility, and, if you use and maintain them properly, will last indefinitely.  They are not expensive, either— a standard, gravity-fed system will typically run $4,000 to $6,000.  If you are in an environmentally sensitive area, like next to a body of water, they will range from $6,000 to $15,000, and that is if you even need a special system.  A fair number of the systems in use already meet the state requirements. 

On the other hand, treatment facilities cost far more than you are led to believe.  Your assessment fee (the number that everybody hears) may be $10,000, but that is just the cost to run the pipe past your house…it does not include the cost to build that plant and run those mains out to your neighborhood.  Factoring in those costs, you could be looking at thirty to sixty thousand dollars. 

If the cost of that plant isn’t enough to shock you, maybe what happens after the plant is built will.  Developers come in and build upscale homes that drive-up everyone’s property values, and with the increase in population come more tax increases to expand police, fire, schools, etc.  Eventually, many are forced to move because they can no longer afford the property taxes.   

As for pollution…it actually gets worse.  The damages to our shore and coastlines have gone up almost 600% in the last fifteen years where these plants were built because they reduce, not eliminate, contaminates in wastewater.  These mechanized facilities also experience a fair number of breakdowns; every year, billions of gallons of raw sewage are dumped into our waterways because of overloading, pump failures, pipe breaks, etc.   

But it is the third issue that everyone should examine closely: we are running out of water.  Everyday, cities and suburbs draw billions of gallons of water from local aquifers (temporarily stored in water towers and reservoirs), where it is sent to the homes and businesses.  This contaminated water is then sent to a treatment facility; however, rather than returning it to the aquifers where it came from, it is discharged to a river that leads to the ocean. 

Today, America sends over two trillion gallons of water out to the oceans every week—after sixty years of this practice, our underground water supplies are dropping to critical levels. 

Thirty-five states are already projected to face severe shortages within in five years, and, unless we begin making the right choices on how to deal with our water (by starting looking at the future effects), we could be facing a major catastrophe.   

Three states few would think at risk: 

  • Minnesota—The Land of 10,000 Lakes.  Having a great deal of surface water is one thing, but groundwater is another story.  There are suburbs in the twin cities metro area that are now forced to “buy” water from outlaying communities because they are using their own local supplies faster than they can recharge.  Some cities have been forced to start drawing water from nearby rivers to augment their groundwater supplies. 
  • Colorado—Even with their snow-covered mountains, this state is at risk; Colorado’s water supply is limited by fluctuating precipitation levels, and drought cycles are a common characteristic of this semi-arid climate (they have not yet fully recovered from the drought of 2002).  The Colorado River is also a major supplier of water to Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. 
  • Florida—It wasn’t that long ago Florida had too much water; but today, in the southern portion of the state, groundwater has been pumped out in such massive amounts (faster than rain has replenished it) that the water tables have dropped below sea level, which allows salt water to intrude into the fresh-water supplies.  As a result, thousands of domestic and municipal wells have been contaminated and rendered permanently unusable.  Also, the state’s ground-water supplies are fairly shallow and help support the surface soils; when you remove it faster than it can recharge, voids are created, which cause sink holes…as was demonstrated this winter throughout central Florida, with numerous sink holes that took down homes and even major highways.    

Septic systems, when properly designed and maintained, are, in many cases, the best option because they will be far cheaper and do a better job of preventing pollution and help to recharge your local water supplies. So why would someone in a position of voting for these projects ignore these advantages? There are two reasons:

First, in many cases they have fallen for the “septic-systems-are-bad-for-the-environment” line from the people profiting from the treatment plants.  I have met with some of these community leaders who were adamantly against septic systems until they learned the whole story.  Naturally, they were shocked to learn the truth and wondered why they didn’t get all the facts. 

I told them to look at it like any salesman would: if you walk into a Ford dealership, are they going to send you across the street to buy a Chevy?  No, they are going to sell what they have on their lot—a Ford.  And, if you even hint that you are considering another brand, they will rattle off a laundry list of why you shouldn’t buy that competing brand.      

But they second reason is even more disreputable—they can be in on it.  Dig deep enough, and you will find local officials that were “rewarded” (by engineering firms and developers) for pushing these projects through—rewards like consulting fees, Caribbean cruses, etc.  Some have even gotten in on the “game” by purchasing raw land, voting in a treatment plant, and then selling it off at a tremendous profit. 

In one West Coast community, regulatory people drew more than seventy million dollars out of the state funds for administrative fees to push their project through before starting construction.  In the process, this “agency” has attempted to discredit anyone who opposed them (including environmental experts from universities).   Now, they are threatening $5,000 daily fines for homeowners who refuse to get on board with them, and one source tells me about twenty-five percent of the community has been forced to move because they can no longer afford the increase in property taxes stemming from this project. 

The reason they have pushed so hard is now coming to light: people within this agency bought undeveloped property in choice locations with plans to build upscale mansions; they know that they will get more for those palaces with a sewer plant hook-up than they would with a septic system.     

Although citizens can fight these publicly funded projects, very seldom do people get the full story. As a result, in most cases, they go through with a minimal amount of public opposition.  By banding together and working as a group, these “plants-for-profit” projects can be shut down. 

However, the public should know that they need to act right away, because in many cases, the meter is running.  In one small community, a “consultant” came into town and convinced the city council a treatment facility was needed.  They agreed and brought in an engineering firm to give them a plan and a bid. 

everal property owners, however, realized the need for this project was questionable, and after four years, they succeeded in shutting it down.  Done deal, right? Wrong. 

The engineering firm was on the clock from the first phone call; total amount paid by the taxpayers was 3.4 million dollars, and the firm never even turned a shovel (the majority of that bill was accrued in the last twelve months when they realized they were going to lose the job).  Now, the people are trying to get that cash back, but it means they have to hire attorneys and auditors out of their own pockets.  

Keep in mind, public indifference and ignorance has allowed this practice to continue for decades; many of these deals are finalized over power lunches among a few people in key positions, and they have learned how to play the system and bureaucracy to their advantage.     

If your community is facing one of these projects, you need to get involved and learn what your options are.  Call your local septic contractors to get their opinions and learn what your best choices are; do not allow your community to get signed into a plan that will not only deplete your wallets but your water supplies as well—all because a handful of people sold out your future for short-term profits. 

If you thought that $4 a gallon for gas was bad, wait until you start paying $10 to take a shower.

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners, teaching them about the health and environmental needs for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect/design/install/maintain their systems.  He has also represented homeowners in their fights against public sewer projects, and he speaks at contractor certification courses around the country on the subject of customer service. 

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