By Nick Bernard
Kathryn Stasiuk Riddell, rural development engineer for WSP, presented a septic re-inspection program update to Algonquin Highlands council on Dec. 9. In 2017 the company was hired by the township to implement a septic re-inspection program over the course of five years. Stasiuk Riddell’s report covered the inspections that took place during 2020 and 2021.
“I think we can all say that the last two years have been a bit extraordinary, in some ways,” she said. “In 2020, WSP conducted a voluntary re-inspection program, so those that participated in the program last year … were able to do so voluntarily, and then in 2021, we moved back to our conventional model, which also includes the scheduling of inspection times to increase our overall participation.”
According to Stasiuk Riddell, participation had indeed increased in 2021. She said WSP has inspected 3,173 properties over the four years that the re-inspection program has been in place, with 966 inspections to be completed in 2022.
“Our results for 2020 and 2021 are, generally speaking, on-par with the results that we’ve been seeing in the previous years,” she said.
There were, however, some exceptions, as WSP has seen an increase in Class 1 sewage systems, which are defined as privies, outhouses, composting toilets, and incinerating toilets. Stasiuk Riddell also reported that WSP has seen an increase in Class 2 sewage systems in certain zones, defined as greywater sewage systems. She says this has led to an increase in remedial actions around those systems, that is, actions meant to address deficiencies in how those systems have been installed. There have also been a reported increase in Class IV systems receiving remedial action letters, but the number of failing systems that have received those actions remains low.
In responding to Stasiuk Riddell’s report, Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt expressed her appreciation for the program, highlighting that there was work still to be done.
“What we found is that there remains illegal discharged surface and greywater systems not present, so those kinds of things remain disappointing,” Moffatt said. “It’s great that we’re catching those folks and getting those issues fixed … I would hope that folks would want to achieve more for the land and place they love so much.”
Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen wondered what practices were in place to ensure remedial actions were being completed, because of the high number of properties that have required them.
“I just want to make sure we do continue to follow up on those that need remedial action, and that they don’t kind of go by the wayside,” Danielsen said.
“Yeah that’s all handled internally by our staff,” Moffatt responded. “And we have had conversations in the past when the program was initially implemented, and the size of the contract was shocking to some people and they said it was a money grab.”
“We had to keep pointing out that there was a ton of work afterwards that comes back to keep the program running,” Moffatt continued. “But yes, that work continues in-house … We can probably get that from staff at some point, just where we are on those internal stats for follow up.”
Councillor Lisa Barry, whose own property is built in a sandy area, focused her question on the effect topography has on clustering, a decentralized type of wastewater treatment system that collects wastewater from two or more dwellings.
“How does [topography] affect the clustering?” she asked. “So, for instance, in areas where there’s more gravel or there’s more sand, does that elevate the risk?”
“So, one of the differences in the risk factors that would be considered associated with the soil type would be that the leaching bed sizing is estimated for all of the leaching beds that were inspected,” replied Stasiuk Riddell, who referenced a map presented in the report. “When we know the approximate soil type of the area, then we would estimate if the leaching bed is undersized based on the soil type of the area.”
“I think because of the cluster analysis, the density piece ends up being one of the biggest contributors to our representation of risk,” Stasiuk Riddell continued. “We are seeing more pump tanks and more systems that have filtered beds and these smaller beds as well in these more topographically varied areas just to get our effluent up to a location that’s high and dry away from the water.”
Councillor Jennifer Dailloux’s question centered around educating the public on septic health after the partnership with WSP ends in 2022, and whether there were any key salient lessons that could be imparted on the general public.
“I think probably one of the prevalent ones that comes to mind is vegetation under leaching beds,” Stasiuk Riddell responded. “As we get through the program, I would have thought more people were aware that leaching beds should be maintained with short manicured grass, and if you start to allow that brush to grow and grow … those dense roots can get into the bed and we don’t want that to damage your pipes and then, you know, ultimately require a leaching bed replacement.”
She said the cost would be greater to replace the leaching bed than to remove saplings and other vegetation.
Robert Passmore, senior rural development engineer for WSP, said that understanding what a septic system is and why they are needed is critical in terms of public education moving forward.
“It goes into the whole aspect of seeing proximity,” he said. “Looking at how a sewage system interacts with the surface water and groundwater … if you understand how it works and how it’s situated, then you have to look at how you want to maintain that investment.”
He says that maintaining a septic system should have the same importance as maintaining a roof.
“I see most of the time pretty much everywhere you go … you run into this situation where it’s an afterthought, it’s not proactive,” said Passmore. “What we’re looking at doing is offering up some literature and primers to be able to assist with the municipalities to upload to their website like a homeowner portal.”
“A tremendous number of people – even folks who haven’t been very happy with having to have the inspection, a lot of people have found it really interesting,” agreed Moffatt. “So that education piece has been partially inherent in the process.”
Stasiuk Riddell acknowledged the hesitancy from residents to participate in the re-inspection program, but expressed that the program has helped educate residents on the environmental impacts of their septic systems.
“One of the most powerful things about every inspection program like this is to be able to get knowledge of systems township-wide,” Stasiuk Riddell said. She said being aware of failing systems helps maintain the safety of surface water, and also helps maintain property values, whether or not repairs and replacements need to be made.
“It’s helpful, certainly, for us to catch those systems and get ahead of that,” she said. “I have enjoyed noticing that while there is hesitancy for some citizens to want to participate in the program … people are getting a lot out of it. I’ve been thanked on-site, I’ve had people say ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this program because I know it’s going to be good for our lakes’. And I think that that’s one of the impacts that I’m really proud of.”