The Dunes City Story

The November 25, 2009 meeting organized by Paul Robertson, Manager of Devils Lake Water Improvement District with the City of Lincoln City was intended to explore septic regulation for properties tributary to Devils Lake.  Much of the material provided was from Dune City, Oregon identified as a model for a septic monitoring program.  Given the prominence of material from Dunes City a review of the circumstances and details of their program are in order.

Lincoln City’s and Dunes City’s interest in septic regulation differ greatly.  Lincoln City is interested solely because of the advocacy of Paul Robertson who believes based on a 30 year old study that leaking septic systems are contributing  to cyanobacteria blooms in Devils Lake.  Dunes City interest is based on a complex set of unique issues.  The local lakes are the source of the community’s drinking water. Drinking water has been the focus of intense public debate in the community for years.  These complex issues involve, historical water rights, the lack of a municipal water or sewer system, rapid development, allegations of official abuse of power and degrading water quality.

Dunes City is a City in Lane County, Oregon. The population was 1,241 at the 2000 census, and has increased to 1,360 in 2007. There were 705 housing units in the City. Residents of Dunes City , one of two cities in Oregon without a municipal water delivery system, rely on individual water systems to divert water for domestic purposes and this keeps water quality concerns before the public.

Dunes City has a unique set of circumstances, they source their drinking water from Woahink Lake, Clearwox Lake, Siltcoos Lake and private wells. Water is not provided from a common source, but rather from individual pipes (over 200) into Woahink Lake that feed single family dwellings.  In some cases small community water systems have been created to feed water to several homes from a single lake source.  Homes further from the lake shore use individual wells for their water.  There is no sewage system in Dunes City, 100% of residences process waste water through the use of 814 individual septic systems.  It is this unique situation that has driven Dune City to use of a variety of City ordinances to ensure residents have a clean source of potable water.  According to a City official, in the three years since the ordinance was pass over 200 septic systems have been inspected and while repairs have been made on several systems less than 1% were identified as a “failed systems” requiring replacement.

Water Rights Issues Raised

In 1992, new water availability standards became effective, limiting Woahink Lake water use which discouraged out-of-compliance residents from requesting authorization to use water. In 2002, a citizen complained to the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) of unauthorized water use in Dunes City. This problem was solved when OWRD agreed that the municipality could sub-allocate its 1968 water right permit to out-of compliance residents. The Dunes City’s Permit Amendment listed 217 new points of diversion; the permit was strengthened during the 2005 legislative session by the passage of House Bill 3038, allowed 20 years for the development of municipal water permits.  For more information see (Lake Wise March 2006 and Lake Wise March 2007)

Period of Rapid Development and Building Moratorium

With the water rights issue resolved, water was made available for new residential development. In 2005 Dunes City, with a population of fewer than 1,400 residents, received six applications for a total of 87 new lots. Five of the six applications were filed by Rob Ward, who resigned as Dunes City mayor in October 2005 amid allegations that he unfairly used his influence to rewrite the City’s building code opening the door to high-density developments.  Residents packed City Council meeting though the fall and howled in opposition to the projects. The timing of these applications came just weeks before the City planner was to resign overwhelming the replacement who lasted just two weeks.  All six of the applications were approved.

Members of the City’s Water Quality Committee feared that the casualty of unchecked rapid development, nearly 10 years growth in the course of a month, would be the communities drinking water contained in Woahink Lake.  The City proposed a building moratorium so the lake’s water quality could be studied before any more developments were approved.  The Dunes City Council took the bold step on May 12, 2006 to pass a temporary building moratorium.  For more information see (Dunes City Newsletter July 2006 , City Council Minute May 12, 2006, Article in Eugene Register-Guard.)

In defense of the development, speaking against the moratorium, former Mayor Ward stated that the houses and septic systems that pose a threat to Woahink are already there.  He cited a Lane County analysis in the 1970’s estimating 25 percent of the septic systems around the lake were failing. Countering this claim were anti-development proponents which seek the moratorium and regular monitoring of the impact of the septic system and runoff into the lake. See editorial (Eugene Register-Guard.)

Water Quality Changes In Woahink Lake and Siltcoos Lake

All this attention on water rights, new developments and building moratoriums tended to focus residents toward water issues.  While the Lane Council of Governments prepared a Dunes City Drinking Water Source Assessment in 2002 and the Siuslaw National Forest published a 2004 Coastal Lakes Watershed Analysis, they received little attention.

In the spring of 2006, local resident Richard Koehler reported to City Council that he had been a resident since 1960 and experience his first noticeable algae bloom in the summer of 2005.  He also reported that Little Woahink Lake drains through a wetland directly into Woahink Lake and that in the fall of 2005 and early 2006 the construction of a road located adjacent to Little Woahink Lake produced pronounced erosion, pools of muddy water at culvert locations, and sedimentation flows down the roadside, into the lake and adjoining wetland. The sedimentation from this construction, was so severe that residents downstream in Woahink Lake had water filters literally clogged with sediment as a result.

During the fall of 2007, a health advisory against usage of Siltcoos Lake for drinking and other domestic use was issued by Dunes City, the South Coast Water District, the Lane County Health Department, and the Oregon Department of Human Services. The advisory was the result of a dense bloom of the blue-green algal species Anabaena planktonica.  Residents dependent upon Siltcoos Lake were forced to find alternate domestic water sources for a total of 52 days. For more information see (Lake Wise March 2006)

City’s Response – New Ordinances

Not only did the residents take notice of the ongoing controversies the City Council decided to act as well.  Dunes City feels it has a history of being “first” in Oregon in terms of many governmental actions.  The City began drafting the state’s first septic-system inspection and maintenance ordinance, as well as the first “low-phosphorus” fertilizer and liquid soap ordinance.

The Water Quality Control Committee felt that there was a need for a septic system maintenance ordinance to protect the lakes in Dunes City. The ordinance would require an inspection of the system on a regular basis and, if required, provide for the system to be pumped or repaired. There will be two types of inspections on a five year cycle. Initial inspection will be visual and olfactory. If necessary, there will be a Type 2 inspection that would require an inspection, pump the system, and check the pumps to bring the system up to code. During the March 10, 2005 City Council meeting Ordinance No. 173, to establish a new Chapter 157 within the Dunes City Code entitled “Septic System Maintenance” was introduced. For more details see (City Council minutes Mar. 3, 2005)

There was no further activity on the proposed ordinance for a full year with the second reading occurring on March 09, 2006 accompanied by just 30 minutes of public testimony.  The Council voted and Ordinance 173 passed.  For the text of the original regulation see ( Septic Ordinance 173).  Continuing its efforts the City took on fertilizers which get into waterways and passed another ordinance March 8, 2007 eliminating harmful phosphorus in the town.  For more details see (City Council minutes Mar. 8, 2007) and (Phosphorus Ordinance 190)

Implementation Issues With The Septic Ordinance

After the passage if the septic ordinance the City had to implement the new rules.  There have been several  challenges and lessons learned.  The first evaluations were to those septic system installed before 1974 (no mapping), the next tier was to be those installed before 1983 (no electronic recordings), then homes built after 1983 and closest to the lakes, and finishing with the rest of the Citywide evaluations.   Many of these challenges are contain in the City’s Septic Maintenance Status Report.

There are 748 septic systems in Dunes City and by March of 2009 about 100 had been evaluated.  The original 5 year program should end in February 2011, but because of a slow start this date is no longer attainable.  The City is now moving forward with about 20 evaluations a month.

The original wording of the ordinance left some to interpret that having their septic tank pumped in the last five years was in compliance with the inspection requirement.   The City will be issuing new letters to those who did not originally comply, those who do not comply will be subject to fines.  It was stated that the cost of pumping is $500 and the cost for an inspection will run from $700 to $800.  Replacing a system can be quite costly and the ordinance contains no process to help residents defer the expense. New tanks either plastic ore concrete tanks cost $1000, tank replacement labor is about $5500 and drain-field replacement is about $4500.  In some cases alternative treatment technologies must be employed running into $20,000 price-tags, requiring $1,000 annual monitoring contracts.  For more information see (Water Quality Committee Minutes;  March 6, 2008, January, 5, 2009, March 5, 2009, April 2, 2009)

Evolution of Septic Ordinance

In order to address some of the implementation issues that have impacted the program in the first three years the City has drafted a major rewrite of the original ordinance.  Ordinance 203 is before the City Council  for Public Hearing and approval in the December 10, 2009 meeting.  This new version adds several definitions to clarify the regulation.

I spoke with Lisa Ekelund the City’s Planning  Secretary who indicated that the new ordinance  attempts to clearly establish the operation of the inspection program.   That is, the initial inspection shall include pumping of the septic tank when necessary and mapping of the septic system.  The map shall include cleanout port, access port, distribution box, and the drain-field.  Every five years  periodic inspections include the condition of the septic tank contents, the absorption disposal/drain-field, pumps, filters, and other important features of the system and the preparation of a report.  If a periodic inspection indicates a fully functioning system, pumping is not required unless the Inspector deems it necessary.

Another area of confusion was generated by the use of several reference to State regulations that apparently do not exist.  The new ordinance also altered the description of the administration of the program to match the City’s payment and assessment system.

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Filed under DLWID, Septic, Septic

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