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Would $10 have been enough to monitor septics at poisonous Summit Lake?

Late in 2016, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners passed a new plan to manage septic systems. It would have assessed a flat $10 annual fee on septic systems throughout the county to fund education, monitoring for contaminants and data collection. This January, a new set of county commissioners was seated – and a few months later they voted to strip the ability to actually fund the plan. A $10 annual fee was just too much to help ensure clean, drinkable water.

I feel like this should be a light-your-hair-on-fire moment for this county commission and their constituents. I can’t believe people aren’t screaming at the commissioners demanding to know why they didn’t stand up for public health and institute a measly $10 annual fee. This seems like a steal compared to toxins in your drinking water.

Then there was an outbreak of poisonous algae in Summit Lake. According to the state Department of Health, malfunctioning septic systems are one of the likely causes of a poisonous algae outbreak. The problem on Summit Lake is that the same residents who live along the lake and use septic systems to deal with their human waste also depend on the lake for their drinking water.
Do we know for sure that septic systems are the cause of excess nutrients in Summit Lake that caused a poisonous algae outbreak? Well, no, we don’t. But the fact that we don’t know this is the main problem. Any sort of expanded monitoring or education that could do something to prevent a situation like the one at Summit Lake will now go wanting because there will be no funds to pay for it.In the approved, but apparently now unfunded septic plan, the county specifically called out Summit Lake as a very vulnerable spot for mismanaged septics. Said the plan: “Summit Lake, which is used by most residents for their drinking water source, shall be designated as a Sensitive Area. All wastewater disposal systems in the Summit Lake watershed shall have required operational certificates and dye testing to assure that routine inspection and maintenance is completed at least every three years and failing systems are identified and repaired.”

The plan also pointed out that Summit Lake, despite being the source for drinking water for people living on Summit Lake, presents some real issues about how exactly septic tanks would keep from polluting that source: Its steep slopes, shallow soils, and generally small lots sizes make siting and functioning of on-site sewage systems around the lake difficult. A 1992-1997 sanitary survey found 58 systems failing (18%) – the majority of which were repaired.  Surface waters cannot be adequately protected from contamination to be safely used as a domestic water supply without treatment. A public health advisory issued in 1987 advises against consumption of untreated lake water at Summit Lake. A comprehensive program would ensure routine inspection and maintenance of all OSS within the Summit Lake basin and identification and correction of failing systems. The Summit Lake watershed should be considered for special area designation due to the serious threat posed to the drinking water supply by failing septic systems.

Twenty years ago they knew that 18 percent of the septics were failing because they went out and looked. Just like when they found 14 percent failing on Henderson Inlet. Here’s the underlying point: Since 1997 the county hasn’t gone back to take another look at septics around Summit Lake. Now the water has too many toxins to drink. The reason we can’t rule out septics as the source for algae with toxins is because we haven’t looked—we aren’t monitoring and analyzing the data.  Nothing that I’ve seen from the county says that they can do anything to track down the source of the algae. The very least you could say is that $10 a month could have gone to a small bit of dye testing to see if in twenty years any septics around the lake had begun to fail.
Right now what the county is doing is waiting – hoping that  sunlight and time will deal with the algae. A more progressive approach would be get out there and start figuring out why we have a public health crisis on Summit Lake to begin with.

Emmett O’Connell lives in Olympia and blogs about the region at



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