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Column: Take care of septic system to avoid catastrophe

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water. Contact her at 651-330-8220, ext. 35, or angie.hong@mnwcd.org. The East Metro Water blog is at www.eastmetrowater.org.

During my sophomore year of high school, my mother and I moved into a new house on the edge of town. Surrounded by thick bushy pines and nestled on a three-acre chunk of land, the amenities of the yard made up for the fact that it was right off the highway and that our nearest neighbors raised sheep in their basement. While my mom bemoaned the lack of space in the house, the dark colored cabinetry and the inexplicable wooden "x" in the middle of the living room wall, I was more interested in exploring the field out back with my dog and setting up my jumbo trampoline on the jumbo-sized lawn.

The previous owner had passed away, leaving the house in a mild state of disarray. We spent the first few weeks in the home as investigators, exploring where the electrical wires in the closet went and what was behind the secret door in the basement (sadly, not a secret passage — just a bunch of junk).

Early the next spring, when the snow began to melt, we watched with dismay as our giant backyard turned into a giant pond. Our worries grew when the water began to leak into our basement, especially after we noticed the smell. As we soon learned, that water in the basement wasn't just snowmelt; our septic tank had overflowed and was now filling the yard and basement with fetid wastewater. Yuck!

If you are one of the 50,000 people in Washington County with a septic system (officially known as subsurface sewage treatment systems or SSTS), you may have experienced similar catastrophes in the past. Or, if you are new to country living, you might be wondering how to take care of your well and septic system to ensure that they function properly and don't create expensive problems.

On Tuesday, Oct. 2, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment will offer a free seminar for homeowners with private wells and septic systems. The workshop will be held at the Washington County Fairgrounds, Hooley Hall (12300 40th St. N., Lake Elmo) and is offered in partnership with the University of Minnesota Onsite Sewage Treatment Program and Minnesota Department of Health, with funding support from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund. Light refreshments will be provided.

There are more than 16,000 SSTS in Washington County and residents in 80% of the county's geographical area are served by these systems. When they function properly, septic systems treat household wastewater effectively and prevent contaminants like bacteria, viruses and chemicals from polluting lakes, streams and groundwater resources. However, there are places in the county where failing septic systems have caused E. coli contamination in nearby streams.

During the Oct. 2 seminar, attendees will learn how to care for septic systems and wells to protect the environment and avoid expensive repairs. Instructors will address common questions such as how SSTS treat wastewater, when to conduct routine maintenance like pumping and cleaning, where to take well water samples for testing, what to plant on septic mounds, and how to keep systems from freezing in the winter. They will also discuss potential risks created by disposing of pharmaceuticals, unused medications, and personal care products in septic systems. A staff person from Washington County will be available to answer questions about the county's rules and financial assistance programs for SSTS replacement.

Caring for wells and septic systems can seem complicated and intimidating, but learning what to do can help to prevent catastrophes like sewage overflows and backed-up pipes. There's nothing like the drama caused when your septic system fails.

To RSVP for the Well and Septic Workshop on Oct. 2, call 651-430-6655 or email septic@co.washington.mn.us.

To learn about permits, inspection requirements, and financial assistance for SSTS in = Washington County, visit www.co.washington.mn.us/septic.