BY GARY MAY
If you were among the thousands of people seeking relief from record-high temperatures by fleeing to Ontario’s beaches this summer, you can thank environment-friendly waterfront property owners if your favourite swimming spot was not among the “posted” areas that kept many others on dry land during the heat wave.
Tiny Township, on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, is drawing particular attention from across the province for its septic tank inspection program that was initiated by an association of cottagers’ groups anxious to keep their sparkling waters clean.
Tiny Township Mayor Peggy Breckenridge told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com the cottagers’ groups decided a decade ago they wanted to ensure the municipality’s 70 kilometres of waterfront would remain safe for swimming, and not suffer frequent beach closures because of high E. coli levels.
Tiny’s nearly 11,000 permanent residents are joined by another 17,000 seasonal residents who love the area’s recreation opportunities and unspoiled beauty. (See the Tiny Township community profile for more details
). So when the cottagers came to council with a plan to inspect septic systems along the waterways, pretty well everyone thought it was a good idea.
Today, inspections are done on a contract basis by C.C. Tatham & Associates, a private consulting engineering firm.
The township may have a “Tiny” name, but its inspection program is making a big splash in the world of municipal affairs. Tatham sewage system inspector Bill Goodale says he gets frequent inquiries and visits from other communities interested in knowing how Tiny’s program works. He has also spoken to the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association and will make a presentation this fall to the Ontario Building Officials Association.
Those municipalities and organizations are gearing up for what they see as the provincial government’s inevitable entry into the field of septic tank re-inspection. They, as well as conservation authorities and health units, await new rules that will require the conducting of regular inspections across the province.
Bechara Daher, the Town of Leamington’s building manager, says once the anticipated rules are in place, the municipality will have to inspect all systems and then crack down on offenders. Right now, he says, Leamington — like most other communities — acts only on a complaint basis.
Equity in your waterfront home is tied to water quality
But several municipalities — including Gravenhurst and communities around Ottawa and Brockville — have heeded the advice of cottagers and lakefront residents and introduced their own programs aimed at identifying troublesome septic systems that could affect water quality.
Denis Orendt, executive director of the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association, applauds the private residents’ and cottagers’ groups that have pressed for septic inspection and says he looks forward to the day the province mandates all municipalities to do the same. He says the association has been working with the provincial government to write the protocol for provincewide inspections.
“The main purpose of the re-inspection program is to get at the older systems,” says Orendt. “Those put in in the last 10 years should be in good shape.”
He says people need to realize that their equity is tied up in the quality of their water, so that quality needs to be protected.
An estimated 15 per cent of Ontarians do not have access to municipal sewers. And while there are 1.2 million onsite septic systems across the province, it is estimated that fewer than three in 10 are serviced by onsite professionals.
That could be a worry when you consider Goodale’s experience has been that one-quarter of the systems inspected in Tiny Township have been found to have some type of defect. Orendt says an inspection project on Charleston Lake near Brockville turned up a failure rate of 45 per cent.
Many of the defects identified in Tiny and at Charleston Lake were minor and did not affect the system’s operation, but significant problems were also uncovered. Everything from tree roots, to leaks, to structures being built atop drainage beds have been discovered — all problems that will hamper the system’s proper operation.
When pollutants leach into waterways, it can lead to beaches being posted, as well as excessive weed growth and algae blooms. Of course, there are other non-human sources of pollutants such as E. coli. Runoff from livestock manure and crop fertilizer, as well as bird droppings, also affect water quality.
The Ontario government says if a septic system is properly built, maintained and treated, it is a perfectly acceptable method of dealing with sewage. But many systems are old, have not been regularly and properly pumped out and maintained, are fitted with illegal connections or discharges, or have had substances injected into them that kill the bacteria needed to keep them functioning properly.
Judith Grant is president of the Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations. There are about 32 cottagers’ groups in the municipality, and 27 of them belong to Grant’s federation.
Her organization decided a long time ago not to wait for the province to act. As far back as 2001, she said, volunteers began to sample swimming water quality around the township. Then they pressed the township to introduce a septic tank inspection program. Septic tank problems are not always obvious, she said, and it was recognized that only through a full pump-out and inspection could they be detected.
Cottage septic systems not equipped for full-time living
“Initially, we thought they’d just do the inspections along the shore,” Grant told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “But it expanded. Once they got started, it was felt that it was only fair to go across the township and inspect inland systems, too.
“Systems might have been built adequately for small seasonal cottages. But cottages were being built larger and more elaborate. They were becoming full-time homes. Those old septic systems weren’t always adequate to handle the load.”
Under the program, inspections are done at a cost to the property owner of about $85, then the owners are notified if a problem is discovered, and given time to rectify it. If the owners fail to act, an order is issued under the Ontario Building Code Act, which regulates septic systems of 10,000 litres a day or less. Prosecution can take place if the property owner still fails to act. In extreme circumstances, the municipality can do the work and bill the owner.
But Goodale says most property owners comply voluntarily when a problem is identified.
He says it’s hard to quantify the impact the inspection system has had, but he has noticed fewer beach closures. “We like to think it’s a result of the cleanup of our old septic systems,” he says.
Adds Breckinridge, “this has definitely been a very effective exercise. We’ve identified some very bad examples that needed to be cleaned up.”
A similar program is under way in the Town of Gravenhurst, says Kevin Lehan, the town’s septic and building inspector. “The cottagers initiated it; we implemented it,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “And we’ve had 95-per-cent voluntary compliance.”
He says the improved water quality is obvious at some beach locations. “Closures were bad in the past, but we’re seeing an improving trend now.”
Grant says in Tiny Township, cottage associations are now taking testing to a new level. This year, they have implemented well-water sampling to determine whether there is an unhealthy level of nitrates in the drinking water.
(Nitrates are primarily used as fertilizers. According to the Advanced Purification Engineering Corp. website, “excessive levels of nitrate in drinking water have caused serious illness and sometimes death. The serious illness in infants is due to the conversion of nitrate to nitrite by the body, which can interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of the child’s blood.”)
All of this grassroots activity to force municipal governments to take action is a result of increased awareness of the environment and hazards that threaten it, says Doug Paterson, president of the Balsam Lake Association in the Kawartha Lakes region.
Paterson says many lake properties have evolved from seasonal cottages to year-round homes, and the green movement is now a priority for people who live in Ontario’s waterfront communities.
“The era has passed when people didn’t care about water quality,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “For example, bathing in the lake was common not that long ago. Discharging pollutants onto your property and letting them flow into the lake. Not caring about shoreline vegetation or making property changes that increase erosion. That’s all in the past for most people.
“Balsam Lake’s water quality is good. We do aggressive water testing and the results have been stellar this year.”
He says “some of our members aren’t keen on government telling them what to do. We’ve discussed (inspection programs). But the feedback was that we don’t want to be seen as an organization that brings in these controls.”
At the same time, “what Tiny Township is doing is probably the way of the future,” Paterson believes. “It’s not fair, if not everyone is showing the responsibility of taking these measures to keep their septic systems working properly.”
Goodale says if property owners don’t want government telling them what to do, they should take the approach taken in Tiny Township. “I’d suggest they build a partnership. Build a program, together, so that everybody knows how it’s going to be done. Then government’s not telling you how to run your affairs.”
Facts about septic systems
A standard septic system consists of a septic tank and leaching bed. In this system, heavy solid materials settle to the bottom, while lighter wastewater remains at the top and flows into underground perforated pipes that filter into the ground, where it is further treated by bacteria and soil organisms.
Several alternatives exist. Some provide on-site treatment. Properties with inadequate space for such a system sometimes have simple holding tanks that need to be pumped out much more frequently — perhaps every couple of weeks.
Replacing a septic system can be expensive — anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 or, for some modern systems that treat the waste, $30,000 or more.
Advice on keeping your septic system humming
Regular maintenance, watching what you pour down your drains and moderating water use can prevent problems. Some experts recommend pumping your septic system every three years, or as frequently as once a year if you’re living in an area with heavy, wet soil. Some recommend having the tank inspected annually by a qualified septage hauler.
Experts recommend avoiding septic stimulators and additives, marketed as septic tank cleaners, starters or enhancers. They are unnecessary, and can actually shorten the life of your septic field. Don’t flush paints, solvents, thinners, nail polish remover and other common household compounds — bleach, toilet bowl cleaner and caustic drain openers — that can kill helpful organisms in your system. Also, septic systems cannot digest oils, grease and fat.
Avoid garburators, disposable diapers and sanitary products. Heavy vehicles, machinery and structures sitting on top of soil over your septic system will crush pipes. Tree roots can clog pipes. Watering interferes with the soil’s ability to absorb liquids and break down wastes.
Use a washing machine filter. Lint screens aren’t enough — minute particles can get through. A typical family washing machine produces enough lint in a year to carpet a living room floor. Lint clogs the soil in drain fields.
When septic systems go bad
Among the warning signs of a problem septic system are:
Excessively green or spongy grass over the bed; toilets, showers and sinks take longer to drain; occasional sewage odours become noticeable, often after a rainfall; grey or black liquid surfaces in your yard, or backs up through plumbing fixtures into the home.
If any of these symptoms happen to your system, get it checked. If it’s occurring elsewhere to your knowledge, advise your municipal officials.
For more information, visit the Ontario Onsite Wastewater Association’s septic system information page
at or the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Association’s website
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2010