Smart Septic Installation

May 31, 2023 

Re: May 25,2023 Meeting 

To: Kathryn Kolberg 

From: Commissioner Williams  

Agency Routed Memo  

“Smart Septic Installation” (Panhandle Health District) 

Permits are required for all subsurface sewage disposal (septic) systems in Idaho. And all structures that generate wastewater must discharge it to an approved system. For panhandle health district (PHD) to make a meaningful statement to a landowner and the county regarding the potential suitability for a septic system, an on-site inspection including testholes is usually necessary.

There are site specific conditions and requirements for individual sewage disposal.

The conditions are designed to protect the health and safety of all persons to include the landowner, the public and natural resources.

Bonner County planning department sends out an agency routed memo to various agencies; including Panhandle Health. This is a canned letter asking whether the agency has any comments or concerns regarding the given file, with a link provided to the county application, which is on the county website. The septic information submitted by applicants to Bonner County is of variable quality and often inaccurate or missing altogether. PHD cannot assess the file properly unless they have adequate and correct information regarding the septic or potential for septic on the site.

Bonner County does not require verification that the project has or will have a suitable option for septic, as this can only be done through a PHD review of the information and site conditions as they pertain to specific proposals. In many cases, a PHD review will require that the landowner apply for a septic site evaluation with PHD and complete all necessary fieldwork (testholes etc.) before PHD has adequate information to make a determination on project feasibility. A suitable and sanitary location to dispose of wastewater is critical to project planning and protection of the community.

In addition to using accurate information pertaining to septic in the early planning phases for projects such as land development, conditional use permits, variances etc., the information is valuable for the landowner, developer and the county to use throughout the remainder of the development process – especially when it comes to selecting suitable locations for structures, wells, and property lines.

Bonner County Current Practice

There have been many improvements made between Bonner County and Panhandle Health with respect to septic systems. Panhandle Health now reviews some building location permit (BLP) requests in advance & provides narrative statements about the septic records located. The landowner receives PHD comments from Bonner County when the BLP is issued. In many cases the County is reviewing and approving files/projects and issuing BLPs without adequate septic information. If PHD is not contacted until the end of the development process, after site conditions are changed or compliance problems have been created with property lines, excavations, wells and structures, the projects often become unnecessarily complicated and costly. In some cases, the land may not even have a suitable location for a septic system.

There is room for improvement between the County and PHD. Requiring a PHD sign off (granting actual approval rather than a PHD records review & narrative statement) before issuance of BLPs would benefit landowners, the community and the county as it will help protect water resources by ensuring the sites are capable of supporting the proposed BLPs. A PHD sign-off may add more time on the front end of the planning process because the applicant will often need to submit a septic application to PHD and complete the necessary field work (testholes/site evaluation) before PHD can sign a BLP. However, it may reduce costly time-consuming problems on the back end, as everyone involved will know what the site is capable of supporting & the suitable septic location that must be protected & retained throughout the project.

Alternatively, if a site is not capable of supporting a septic system, everyone will know this early on, rather than after money and time have been spent on a project that isn’t feasible.

Furthermore, if the County required accurate and adequate information pertaining to sanitary services (septic and water) in applications like CUP’s, variances, land developments etc., this would let all involved assess the project feasibility accurately before approvals are granted. This would help reduce potential problems later. In many cases, the only way to obtain adequate information pertaining to septic will be for the applicant to contact PHD & work through the application/site evaluation process & complete the necessary fieldwork (testholes).

Once current information is obtained regarding whether a site can support the proposal, the information will be useful throughout the duration of the planning and development process. A more collaborative approach, in which PHD is given the opportunity to gather the information necessary to properly assess the projects before they are approved, would help ensure that Bonner County is protecting the water supplies and health of our community.

Large Soil Absorption Systems

Subsurface sewage disposal systems designed for 2500 gallons of wastewater per day or more, are considered Large Soil Absorption Systems and they have additional requirements beyond what a system generating less than 2,500gpd requires. This is intended to protect ground water and surface water from any potential adverse impacts that may arise from localized large wastewater discharges. The gallons per day is determined by the specific uses within structures & on the land.

There is currently no system in place by which Bonner County ensures that the uses being approved for various projects and the associated structures are appropriate for the type of septic system in place or proposed. This may result in the County approving uses that exceed what the septic systems are designed for which may result in negative impacts to the health and well-being of the community; particularly if this adversely impacts ground water supplies and surface water.

In Summary

Knowing whether a site can support the proposed sanitary services (water & wastewater disposal) for any project (BLP, CUP, Land Development etc) in the early phases of planning will help ensure good outcomes for the landowners and our community. In many cases, to properly assess the capabilities of a site, PHD will need to receive an application and conduct the necessary fieldwork (testholes etc). A PHD septic site evaluation is currently valid for 2 years, so the landowner will not need to install the system immediately, but they will have adequate information to properly plan their project & the county will have useful information to use when reviewing projects.

Currently, PHD is only minimally involved in the reviews of Bonner County projects, and in many cases PHD does not have adequate information to provide meaningful input to the County or the applicant.