Newton County in the Buffalo River watershed is included in this program
Program to help area homeowners repair, replace septic systems
by Doug Thompson | February 7, 2021
Owners of homes in Northwest Arkansas that have septic tanks will soon have help repairing and replacing them as part of an effort to protect the region's watersheds.
One-third of the state's population, or about 1.1 million people, depend on septic systems, said Richard McMullen, the state environmental health director. Even a tiny percentage of failing systems would affect thousands of people, he said.
The state Natural Resources Commission approved, for the first time, more than $2.5 million in taxpayer-funded, interest-free loans and some grants to address the problem, starting in Northwest Arkansas. McMullen hopes the program succeeds and can spread statewide.
The commission will evaluate the Northwest Arkansas' program after three years and consider expanding it to other particularly vulnerable watersheds, a spokesman for the commission said in a statement. A statewide program, however, is not something the commission can afford, the statement said.
Septic systems collect waste in underground tanks. The solids settle to the bottom and decompose. The liquid rises to the top and is filtered clean through soil after being dispersed through underground lines.
The Illinois River Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit, will administer the money for fixing septic systems in its watershed in Benton, Washington and Crawford counties. The group received a $281,885 grant and another $1 million in loan money.
Meanwhile, the Missouri-based Ozarks Water Watch will administer $1 million in loans with principal forgiveness and grants of $261,620 in the White River watershed in Benton, Washington, Madison, Carroll, Boone, Newton and Franklin counties.
The money will serve a real need after almost a year of the covid pandemic, said Jon Jouvenaux, owner of BBB Septic Solutions of Cave Springs.
"It's not like I need any more business. We're installing systems every day," Jouvenaux said. "But people who had really nice jobs have been out of work."
An expensive septic system repair hits people hard, especially retirees on fixed incomes who tend to have older systems reaching the end of their designed limits.
During these pandemic times with more people working from home and children attending virtual classes from home, some home septic systems are showing the strain, Jouvenaux said.
"The systems were only used in the evenings and at night before," he said. "Now they're being used all day long."
And, those systems won't recover quickly when the pandemic ends, he said.
"The only way they could stabilize is if the family took a long vacation and didn't use it at all for a couple of months," he said.
The Illinois and Ozarks groups are setting up their programs, administrators said. Both set March 1 as the target date to begin taking applications from septic system owners.
Benton County also has a program to help low-income residents pay for repairs. It's funded by federal taxpayer money, but on a much smaller scale.
The dividing line between the groups' two bordering watersheds runs along the top of high ground in Benton and Washington counties. The Illinois River flows west into Oklahoma. The watershed overseen by the Ozarks group largely goes into the eastward-running White River. That includes the watershed for Beaver Lake, the man-made source of most of Northwest Arkansas' drinking water.
Northwest Arkansas sits atop a limestone bed riven with cracks and caverns, known as a karst topography, said Matt Taylor, program director for the Illinois River group's septic tank remediation program. A failing septic system's contamination can spread in any direction underground, he said.
He emphasized that the remediation program will pay for repairs, not just replacements. A system can fail, for instance, after a vehicle rolls over the dispersion pipes and crushes them or a tree's roots spread though a pipe.
The programs will make a bigger share of grant money available to lower-income applicants, managers said. Higher income applicants will receive a greater proportion of loans that must be repaid, but at no interest.
Details are yet to be announced. Each of the program managers said their share of the money should pay for between 120 and 150 system fixes or replacements. The estimate is based on what was learned from a similar program for low-income homeowners in Missouri, managed by the Ozarks group. The average cost of a system fix there was $12,000, figures show.
Carin Love, internal operations manager for the Ozarks group, said a system could be failing without the owner being aware of it. She advised homeowners to have a licensed septic installation company inspector check their systems.
McMullen made the same point.
"With the karst topography, a failure might not be evident," he said. The foul wet spot on top of the ground that forms when a system fails can take longer to form in Northwest Arkansas.
No reliable figure exists on how many septic systems or failing ones are in the Beaver Lake watershed, much less how many need repair or replacement, according to McMullen and James McCarty, manager of environmental quality for the Beaver Water District, the nonprofit regional water supplier.
The district oversees the wholesale water supply going to city water departments in the region that serve about 358,000 customers and provide about 90 million gallons of water a day.
The water quality in Beaver Lake is very good, but fixing failing septic systems will be an important safeguard, McCarty said. The only required inspections of such systems are when they are installed, he said.
"They don't even require point of sale inspections," he said. He described record keeping on tanks around the state as "atrocious." "I think only good can come out of this," he said of the remediation plan.
The program administrators in Missouri found that some people who moved to the area were unfamiliar with septic systems.
"People moving in from areas with city sewer systems might never have learned how to take care of a septic system," Love said.
New arrivals from urban areas often buy homes in rural areas with acreage, something more affordable in this part of the nation. Then they use garbage disposals as they always have and pour grease down drains -- waste that septic systems don't tolerate as well as sewer systems do.
Groups managing the loans and grants:
Illinois River Watershed Partnership
221 S. Main St., Cave Springs
Ozarks Water Watch
11 Oak Drive, Kimberling City, Mo.