Vernon News

High lake level brings North Okanagan septic concerns to the surface

FILE PHOTO: Water pooled around numerous properties on Okanagan Lake May 24, 2017.

VERNON - The chief of the Okanagan Indian Band says this year’s flooding event is a good wake up call that some septic systems around waterfront aresa may need to be upgraded.

Chief Byron Louis says an unknown number of on-site sewerage systems failed this year when Okanagan Lake rose to unprecedented levels. That led to a number of warnings about contaminated water.

“These are septic fields put in there by a certain standard, but they failed,” he says. “The part that worries us most is, is there any guarantee this isn’t going to happen again in another 100 years? Are we willing to take that chance?”

He believes many people on the lake have already switched their systems to holding tanks, which store waste until it is pumped out, usually once or twice a year.

“They (holding tanks) are safer. The majority of people are on them. Those who aren’t, I hope they take this time to upgrade their standards and make sure tanks are in place,” he says.

He also says it's important that people regularly pump their tanks. 

“If you have an empty tank, what's the threat? It's the ones that… didn’t get pumped or were sub-standard,” he says. 

Efforts have long been underway by the Okanagan Basin Water Board to reduce potential sources of contamination — like sewage — into the region’s lakes.

“I think everybody in municipal government knows there are neighbourhoods around the lake still on septic and there are potential problems with it,” executive director Anna Warwick Sears says.

The water board provides grants to communities to help take neighbourhoods off septic and get them onto sewer systems, Warwick Sears says. It’s important work, because you never know when systems might be compromised, she says. 

“It seems like they’re just accidents waiting to happen. We haven’t seen water this high in 200 years, but we shouldn’t assume it’s not going to come up again.”

The difficulty, she says, is cost and access. Some properties can’t get sewer, in which case they should be upgrading the systems they do have to the safest design possible. 

“There are some pretty primitive septic systems out there in the world,” she says.

She says it’s in a property owner’s best interest to ensure septic systems are well maintained and regularly pumped.

“If you have a cabin on the lake, where is it that you go swimming? You probably go swimming right in front of your cabin. So, people should be concerned about the health of their septic system. They’re probably the ones who are the beneficiaries of the pollution,’’ she says.

Renee Clark, water quality manager for the North Okanagan Regional District, says a properly installed and functioning septic system should include adequate setbacks, regular maintenance and frequent pumping. If done properly, a septic system will treat the solids and the liquid will filter out through the ground. There should not be a direct pipe from the tank to the waterbody, she says.

“(A) failed or flooded septic field has a high potential to impact water quality,” Clark says.

The North Okanagan Regional District does not regulate or monitor septic systems, but does require proof that the health authority has given approval if it is issuing a building permit. It also has no jurisdiction on Okanagan Indian Band land. Sewerage systems must adhere to a number of provincial health regulations. 

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