Flush fee' funding for septic upgrades on hold

$5M taken from state program

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, 08/30/09

The government program to help homeowners upgrade their septic systems is on hold - at least until the county receives more money from the state's "flush fee."

The county Health Department has given out all of its money for upgrading septic systems to improve the health of local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. The county hopes to get more money this fall.

"We're in a waiting pattern right now," said Kerry Topovski, the county director of environmental health. "We're kind of at the mercy of the state."

A portion of the money collected from the "flush fee" - which equates to $30 per home, per year - is set aside for the septic-system upgrades. The rest goes to improving sewage treatment plants and helping farmers plant cover crops on their fields in the winter.

For septic-system owners, the flush-fee assistance amounts to about $10,000 to $13,000, which pays for nitrogen-reducing technology, as well as five years of maintenance.

Nitrogen is one of the key pollutants that harms the bay, by spurring the growth of algae blooms that die and suck oxygen from the water.

The new technology cuts an average septic system's nitrogen pollution from 30 pounds per year to 15.

In Anne Arundel, the septic-upgradeprogram initially had a slow start. The county had to ask for an extension to give out its first share of the money, $2.6 million. In total, 117 septic systems have been upgraded in the county since 2007.

But things picked up earlier this year after the county did away with a rule that prohibited homeowners from ever enlarging their homes in exchange for receiving the financial help. Since the change was made in February, the county received 292 applications for flush-fee assistance, Topovski said.

But since the money ran out this year, there are 67 approved septic projects on hold in the county, Topovski said. She said she hopes the next round of money from the state will be approved this fall.

Anne Arundel is in line to receive $2 million to use over the next 12 months, enough to pay for 120 upgraded systems.

But until the money arrives, homeowners like Shady Side's V.K. Holtzendorf are stuck waiting.

Holtzendorf was approved for a grant to upgrade her septic system earlier this year. Her system isn't failing, but she wanted to do something good for the environment.

Holtzendorf was all set for a contractor to dig up her yard for the new system around the same time as her Independence Day party.

She didn't mind the inconvenience: "I'm proud for my neighbors to see I'm doing it. Maybe they'll do it," she said.

The contractor, Calvert Chaney, of C. Chaney Construction in Harwood, said Holtzendorf's system is one of several stalled projects.

He said the delays have hurt his business, already hit by the recession and the decline in new home construction.

"That was about all I had going on," he said of the flush-fee projects. "For all the septic installers and people who depend on construction, obviously there's no construction now."

Chaney said he's "just hanging on" and hoping the flush fee comes through so his business can pick up.

Topovski, from the Health Department, said she hopes the stalled projects can move forward quickly once the flush-fee grant is approved.

Until then, she still encourages people to apply for the program and get the process started.

"We don't want to discourage people at this point ... We can continue to work with applicants," she said.

$5 million cut

Meanwhile, the state has less flush-fee money to give out for septic systems.

While the money collected through the flush fee remains steady, the governor and state lawmakers quietly made a budget move this year that effectively transferred about $5 million from the flush fee from septic systems to cover crops.

The change is just for fiscal 2010, the budget year that started July 1 and runs through June.

"At the time funding was needed to cover commitments to those who enrolled in the cover-crop program and the septic side was deemed to have more funding than needed at that point in time," said Sue duPont, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

In other words, the septic-system program was slow going, while farmers were signing up in droves for cover-crop assistance.

The cover-crop program pays farmers to plant winter crops that soak up excess nutrients in the soil and stabilize the land. As a result, fewer nutrients and less sediment washes into waterways.

With the shift of funds to cover crops, duPont estimated that 330,500 acres can be planted, resulting in a nitrogen decrease of 1.6 million pounds and a phosphorus decrease of 66,100 pounds.

The cut from the septic program means the Maryland Department of the Environment will take in about $3 million for septics this year instead of $8 million.

Even though the Maryland Department of the Environment is getting less money to distribute for septic upgrades, agency spokesman Jay Apperson said there will be enough money to upgrade 1,000 systems statewide this year.

MDE has a built-up balance of $7 million in the septic fund, and when this year's $3 million is added, there will be $10 million total, Apperson said.

The 1,000 upgraded systems will reduce nitrogen to the bay by about 15,000 pounds per year.

Interest in the septic upgrades is expected to continue to grow.

Starting Oct. 1, a new state law requires shoreline property homeowners to use the upgraded technology when they are replacing their septic systems.

Statewide, there are about 50,000 septic systems within 1,000 feet of tidal waters, which is called the Critical Area. Anne Arundel County has about 13,000 septic systems in the Critical Area.

It's been estimated that about 240 septic systems in the Critical Area fail each year statewide.

"MDE anticipates sufficient funding for upgrading replacement septic systems where there is a failing septic system in the Critical Area," Apperson said.

Questions raised

Reaction to the money shift was mixed.

The Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professional Association, a group representing the septic industry, put out a scathing press release criticizing the move.

"What is the justification for this illegal action occurring to a program with its own special funding sources that has gained momentum over the past year - that now places the program's success in jeopardy?" the group asked.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials weren't thrilled about the $5 million transfer, either.

Jenn Aiosa, the foundation's Maryland senior scientist, said at least the money is still going to reducing bay pollution - though she said it's not a good idea to "pit one good program against another."

She said as the septic grants become more popular, it's going to be more difficult for lawmakers to cut the stream of money.

"It's harder to cut a program that's in demand," she said. "So if MDE can go forward and demonstrate every last dime is requested and is yielding results, my hope is that it would be more difficult to cut."

(Revised August 2009)