(Written by Jack Milarch – NMHBA EVP/CEO – Originally published in the December 2012 Housing Journal)

Finally, We Have More Enlightened Septic Tank Rules

Whether we like it or not, septic tanks are a part of life in many parts of New Mexico. These systems are a large and growing “rural utility”, along with private domestic wells, which allows homes to be built and lived in beyond the limits of municipal utilities. The basic rules about septic tank usage are adopted by the NM Environment Improvement Board (EIB) and administered by the New Mexico Environment Department’s (NMED) Liquid Waste Program. Septic tanks alone do not treat wastewater to potable standards, and are therefore closely regulated so their discharge does not pollute groundwater. After wastewater is dispersed into a drain field natural organisms provide additional treatment to result in a discharge of drinking water quality to the soil. NMED’s Liquid Waste Permits make sure that septic systems are designed so that adequate treatment will occur before the discharge percolates to the nearest water well.

A number of years ago NMED passed a new set of much more restrictive septic tank rules, and we have been debating the necessity of those rules and their impact ever since. In those areas where water quality is critical and vulnerable, conventional systems were not allowed, and only Alternative Treatment Systems were approved. While the ATS concept sounded good, the cost of a disposal system skyrocketed, and these complicated systems involved frequent failures and costly periodic maintenance. Over the last couple years members of the industry and NMED have been working on proposals to overhaul key rules to be more site-specific and hazard-based so that the more cost effective “conventional” systems could be approved and used for additional areas of the state.

A new set of proposed rules went to public hearing in August and October of this year, and the EIB is scheduled to deliberate on the regulations on January 7, 2013. Farmington member Don Becker and NMHBA staff have worked diligently to get changes which we believe will benefit the public and our contractors. In general, the proposed changes would create a more “common sense” approach to the installation, use, and maintenance of septic tanks. The new rules are based on site-specific geology rather than following the “one-size-fits-all” system that has been in place for decades. This could lead to lot size becoming irrelevant for septic system design in areas where the soils would be able to treat the discharge without it ever coming into contact with a groundwater source.

A new concept that appeals to many installers is the creation of “Installer Specialists” — an elite contractor classification for experienced installers who have a clean enforcement record and who voluntarily take continuing education. Installers who achieve this certification level will be allowed to self-inspect and therefore will not have to wait for NMED staff inspections. This is a major accomplishment for the industry and a significant demonstration of faith by NMED.

Following is a synopsis of the major changes:

  • Deletions of the requirement for a replacement drain field area.
  • Calculations for lot sizes that are eligible for septic tanks use a discount for bedrooms in excess of two, and take into account the pollution hazard, possibly freeing up lots which were not eligible for septic tank systems in the past.
  • Approved synthetic materials can be used as a gravel replacement.
  • Qualified and NMED-approved installers may inspect and approve previously unpermitted systems, where currently only NMED inspectors were allowed to do that
  • Installer specialist privileges would mean no “down-time” waiting for NMED inspections.
  • Shorter drain fields are allowed in many areas of NM, significantly saving on gravel and excavation cost.
  • The definition of a “bedroom” is changed to be rooms designated on the plans as bedrooms, so that the debate over unfinished areas and other bedroom-like areas isn’t cause for debate over system and lot sizing.
  • Real estate contracts and the implications for septic tank permitting are clarified.
  • A recognition of systems that split toilet waste streams from other flows for separate disposal purposes allowing much reduced drain field flows.
  • Replacement soil is recognized as a way to remediate a poorly draining site.
  • New leniency on permitting systems where there is no original permit on file, or which were installed without a permit, so that the system can be inspected for meeting the rules at the time of installation or subsequent modification, whichever is less stringent. Prior rules required compliance with “rules-at-the-time-of-installation” with no leeway.

The new rules (along with reams of written testimony and exhibits from the hearing) are available on NMED’s website at http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/fod/LiquidWaste/index.html, or you may get help in obtaining a copy by calling Melanie at the NMHBA office.