Protecting drinking water through improved onsite wastewater system inspection

State: CO Type: Promising Practice Year: 2016

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There are nearly 30,000 onsite wastewater treatment systems in El Paso County. Systems are primarily located in rural parts of the county where sanitary sewer systems from urban areas do not reach. Deficient, leaking, or substandard OWTS pose a risk of waterborne illness for homeowners and neighbors that obtain drinking water from onsite well water systems. Prior practice had been inspection of septic system only when a complaint or request was received by environmental health. Often El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) only became aware of septic system deficiency when inspection staff conducted site visits to inspect and validate complaints. Unknown was the length of time a system could have been posing a contamination risk to drinking water resources or the extent of possible contamination. In 2014, the environmental health division launched a drinking water protection project designed to provide timely access to OWTS information, record septic system inspections during title transfer, and identify and correct critical deficiencies with OWTS in order to mitigate issues that could contaminate drinking water. 

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El Paso County Public Health
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Protecting drinking water through improved onsite wastewater system inspection
El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) serves the 663,519 residents of El Paso County, Colorado. Located 60 miles south of Denver, El Paso County is the most populous county in Colorado. EPCPH’s mission is to protect and promote public health and environmental quality in the community through people, prevention and partnerships. EPCPH inspects, reviews system design and regulates on-site wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), commonly known as septic systems. EPCPH prevents exposure to sewage and the contamination of groundwater by ensuring the proper placement, design, installation, and maintenance of OWTS. There are 29,650 operating OWTS in El Paso County. In 2014, the environmental health division launched a drinking water protection project designed to provide timely access to OWTS information, record septic system inspections during title transfer, and identify and correct critical deficiencies with OWTS in order to mitigate issues that could contaminate drinking water. The objectives of the project were to: ? Create and record septic system inspections for 100% of title transfers involving a septic system? OWTS inspections are conducted by certified and registered National Association of Wastewater Technicians (NAWT) to assure standard-based inspections and professionalism ? Certified inspectors use a standardized electronic inspection report uploaded into a cloud-based database, EPCPH conducts a desktop review and issues a certificate of acceptance or conditional acceptance for systems with critical deficiencies? 100% of systems with critical deficiencies have a correction plan created, and an established timeline for correction is outlined.? 100% of historical septic system records are digitized and made available online at the El Paso County Assessor’s Office website for immediate access by property owners, neighbors, Realtors, and other stakeholders. Present day records are included in online database To meet the project goals and objectives, EPCPH convened stakeholders in December 2014 to provide advice and feedback regarding the project. Stakeholders included members of the real estate industry and local Board of Realtors, NAWT inspectors, title companies, property owners, and the El Paso County Assessor’s Office. EPCPH provided education and outreach to the real estate industry so that agents and title companies were aware of OWTS inspection requirements and how to access and record information regarding inspections in the database. EPCPH staff completed digitization and uploading of all historical septic system records to the Assessor’s database. EPCPH also created a registry of certified NAWT professionals able to conduct septic system inspections for the title transfer process. EPCPH utilizes a third party online inspection tracking database that the certified inspector records inspection results. Electronic inspections allows for expedited review. These combined activities allowed for the launch of the septic system records database on the Assessor’s website on October 30, 2015. This shift from paper records to online records combined with a new process for septic system inspections during title transfer allows for EPCPH to identify and mitigate potential drinking water hazards posed by faulty or substandard septic systems.
There are nearly 30,000 onsite wastewater treatment systems in El Paso County. Systems are primarily located in rural parts of the county where sanitary sewer systems from urban areas do not reach. Deficient, leaking, or substandard OWTS pose a risk of waterborne illness for homeowners and neighbors that obtain drinking water from onsite well water systems. Prior practice had been inspection of septic system only when a complaint or request was received by environmental health. Often EPCPH only became aware of septic system deficiency when a complaint was made and inspection staff made a visit to assess the validity of the complaint. Unknown was the length of time a system could have been posing a contamination risk to drinking water resources or the extent of possible contamination. Development and suburbanization occurring in the rural parts of El Paso County where properties are being transferred among owners offers a unique opportunity to inspect and monitor septic systems during the property closing process. By requiring a septic system inspection during title transfer to identify critical deficiencies allows for stronger protection of drinking water resources and the reduction of potential threats from waterborne illness spread from malfunctioning septic systems to drinking water resources. By providing a online database for standardized OWTS inspection reporting, inspection results are available to property owners and others in a convenient and economical manner—no more time and money spent driving to several government offices to find records or submit inspection reports. Inspections of OWTS by certified inspectors are an evidence-based practice ensuring that trained individuals issue unbiased reports of septic system conditions. Registries also are an evidence-based practice designed to create data systems from tracking and monitoring of health issues or conditions to identify changes in health status or emerging health issues. By combining these two practices in the septic system inspection program, EPCPH has created a system to monitor potential drinking water contamination from septic systems during the title transfer process. Once possible contamination is identified, EPCPH can work with property owners to correct system deficiencies and reduce risk or impact of waterborne illness from contaminated drinking water.
The overarching goal for this project is to protect drinking water resources through inspection, monitoring and mitigation of onsite wastewater treatment systems as potential sources of water contamination. The objectives and activities for the project were: ? By October 1, 2015, digitize 100% of historical septic system information, including maps, drawings, and previous inspection records. ? By October 31, 2015, assure 100% of digitized septic system data, historical and current, is accessible to the public through the Assessor’s Office online Real Estate Property Search database. ? By January 31, 2015, identify and convene 5-10 stakeholders, including representatives from EPCPH, real estate industry, NAWT, and property owners and others to provide regular and documented advice and feedback regarding project design and implementation.? By January 31, 2015, create and maintain a registry of certified NAWT inspectors able to inspect and provide reports on septic systems during title transfer. Certified inspectors input field data using a standardized reporting template into the onlineRME.org cloud-based database. ? By July 1, 2015, provide 5-7 trainings for title company, Realtor and NAWT staff on the onlinermc.com national database, inspection process, and data entry.? By December 15, 2014, launch third party online inspection tracking database that the Certified Inspector records inspection results. Community collaboration was critical to establishing and completing this project. Conducting inspections in this manner, collecting fees, and entering information into a database is completely voluntary although allowed under state statute. In Colorado, local public health departments have jurisdiction over non-municipal onsite wastewater treatment systems in order to preserve the environment and protect the public health and water quality; to eliminate and control causes of disease, infection, and aerosol contamination; and to reduce and control the pollution of the air, land and water, it is declared to be in the public interest to establish minimum standards and regulations for septic systems in the state of Colorado and to provide the authority for the administration and enforcement of such minimum standards and regulations (5 CCR 1002-43). Stakeholders expressed interest and desire to have this project because it protects perspective owner’s investment and information could be accessing online in a convenient and economical manner. Also, the onlineRME.org database provides a standardized reporting template that costs only $3 per inspection and can be accessed by property owners and others. This online system eases the burden of inspectors and others having to drive and request information in person at EPCPH. Now they can access information online 24 hours a day, seven per week. Neighboring property owners and others concerned about drinking water contamination were eager to have a process that more closely monitored adjacent septic systems. The timeline for this project as eleven months with stakeholder and training activities occurring in the first six months, digitization occurring in over the full eleven month period, and database creation and data merging, and data integrity monitoring occurring in the last three months. Septic system information went live on the Assessor’s website on October 30, 2015. The start-up costs for this project were $75,000 for temporary staff costs to purge, index and scan OWTS paper records. Other staff time (in-kind) for the start-up supported the third party online inspection tracking database where the certified inspector records inspection results, convening and training stakeholders, and supervising temporary employees.
EPCPH evaluated the septic system inspection project using process and outcome measures. Process measures monitored the workflow against the timeline and workflow procedures. Outcomes measures were used to determine data integrity, compliance with the inspection during title transfer and completeness of historical data. ProcessStaff was able to complete project implementation within the established timeframe of eleven months. The digitizing project started in March and was complete by October 2015 when the online database went live with septic data. EPCPH was able to achieve 95% of its goal to digitize historical data. Some historical information was incomplete or staff were unable to link data to a property address. Staff is currently conducted additional research, including site visits, to match historical data with current property locations. Staff hopes to increase the completeness of data to 100% by mid-2016. Training and engagement of stakeholders was monitored against the project work plan and timelines. Stakeholders meetings were held according to schedule and included identified representatives. Training of Realtors and title company staff was held according to schedule. One lesson learned was that additional training for users of the database would likely increase data integrity and completeness. EPCPH will offer additional trainings going forward so that database users gain comfort and familiarity with data entry requirements to ensure completeness and accuracy. OutcomesCurrent data indicates that approximately 13% of septic system have critical deficiencies. The project goal stated that 100% of systems with critical deficiencies would have a correction plan created, implemented and achieve a satisfactory re-inspection. To date, this project has achieved this goal for systems where a pre-title transfer inspection was completed, as system deficiencies are being identified and corrected during the title transfer process. EPCPH will continue to monitor this this goal as it works to assure that 100% compliance with the inspection process during title transfer. The project also had a goal of 100% compliance with the septic system inspection during title transfer. EPCPH is currently reconciling property sale records available from the Assessor’s Office against the septic system inspection database to determine which properties did not have an inspection during transfer of ownership and a rate of compliance. Evaluation for 2015 will be complete by July 1, 2016. EPCPH will then determine which title transfer companies and Realtors need additional education and training about the new inspection process. This information will inform continuous quality improvement activities designed to increase compliance with inspection and data entry.
The title transfer septic system inspection program will be financially sustained in majority by fees collected for the inspections and drafting the acceptance document. Additionally, by combining septic system data with the existing Assessor’s Office database of property information allowed for the ongoing hardware and software costs to maintain the database to be added to the existing budgets with minimal future impact. No new hardware or software was purchased; the project leveraged existing capabilities with the Assessor’s Office and other existing County technology infrastructure. Additionally, there was no cost to EPPCH to create the inspection database on onlineRMe.org. The cloud-based system is funded by a $3 user fee paid by certified inspectors when they upload inspection information. The costs of maintaining the Assessor’s database are already included in county budgetary forecasts. Staff time allocated to the project for the functions of future trainings for stakeholders, desk review of applications, data entry and data integrity monitoring are financed by fees. Temporary staff were hired to digitize historical records and are not anticipated as a future expense. The project was well received by stakeholders who indicated that having online access to septic system permits and historical information online greatly enhances their knowledge and ability work effectively with their clients. As the process of conducting inspections was designed to be integrated into the workflow of Realtors and title companies, the project will be viewed as a regular part of doing business. As the costs for inspection are borne by people participating in property purchase, sale or transfer, the fees associated with septic system inspection become another part of the due diligence process for land transactions. The information provided to land purchasers allows them to have full information about the quality of OWTS and make informed decisions.
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