GONZALES — Ascension Parish government is eyeing sweeping new regulatory powers to oversee the upkeep of individual residential sewage treatment systems.
The owners of these roughly 17,000 systems could be required to have them inspected as much as once a month and pay regular maintenance fees to a licensed company, according to William Daniel, Ascension's infrastructure chief.
The proposed rules, still in their nascent stage, will be modeled after ones in place in Harris County, Texas, the home county of Houston. They are part of a renewed push in Ascension to establish a regional municipal system in the parish. Part of that effort includes getting tougher on private individual and neighborhood systems that these officials see as contributing to the parish's water quality problems.
In Harris County, Texas, the owners of roughly 16,500 individual residential sewer systems must have their household treatment plants inspected four times a year.
Typically, owners of these individual systems must hire a licensed inspection company — showing proof through a maintenance contract — and make any repairs those inspectors find or face $250 fines per violation, a county spokeswoman said.
Several administrations in Ascension struggling over the years to keep up with population growth have engaged in seemingly quixotic attempts to bring regional municipal sewer service to eastern Ascension's fast-growing unincorporated areas.
State regulators have warned that water quality problems in the parish's bayous will limit new permits for sewer discharges into those waterways.
But parish officials have been unable to agree on a way to finance and build a system expected to cost $1 billion or more. New discharge standards for Bayou Manchac, an impaired waterway due to its low oxygen environment, have already made it tougher to get new sewer permits that would send wastewater into the bayou or its tributaries.
In a recent interview, Parish Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee promised these changes would be coming sooner rather than later as part of a whole raft of parish enforcement measures that will also look at community systems that service most of parish's newer neighborhoods.
"That is something that is going to happen," said Satterlee, who chairs the Council Utilities Committee.
Though Harris County has a population of 4.6 million, nearly 38 times that of Ascension's and nearly equivalent to Louisiana's, the Louisiana parish and the Texas county have roughly the same number of individual treatment systems.
According to parish officials and the state Department of Health, Ascension has about 17,000 individual systems spread across about one-sixth the land area as Harris County's. Parish officials speculated there could be nearly as many septic systems in the parish.
The individual systems serve one household and don't have the same sewage treatment standards as larger municipal plants but still discharge effluent into nearby road ditches. Parish officials says those discharges, even in the best of cases, encourage vegetative growth and sedimentation in ditches critical for local drainage.
Satterlee faults state environmental regulators for not doing more to enforce discharges by neighborhood sewage treatment systems. But he also suggested many of the individual treatment system owners probably aren't keeping up with maintenance and likely are adding to pollution problems.
The state Department of Health does require that homeowners have a two-year maintenance contract when a new individual system is first permitted and must also agree to maintain it. However, the state doesn't follow up in subsequent years to see that those contracts remain in place.
The state agency inspects based on complaints or under other conditions, such as when a home is sold, a new tenant moves in or when someone is seeking a home loan, health officials said.
Over the past two months, Daniel, the parish's infrastructure director, has discussed the new efforts on regional sewer and the plan for required monthly maintenance of individual treatment systems that he envisions will be based on market rates.
In Council Utilities Committee meetings in March and April, Daniel explained that stepped-up maintenance of individual systems would have the dual benefit of improving water quality and of having the owners of those systems take the first step toward a kind of monthly municipal sewer fee that they don't pay now but may one day pay when their area is pulled into the parish's regional sewer system.
"Because they're basically, by not paying anything (now), they're contributing to the sewer problem in the parish, but they're not helping pay for it," he said. "And I think that it's important that everybody pay their fair share."
In Harris County, the county government has installed monitoring equipment on each of the treatment systems, said Dimetra Hamilton, a county government spokeswoman.
"So if a system fails a test or if a system did not get the proper inspection during that contract year, someone is going to know about it at Harris County," Hamilton said.
Daniel has discussed installing similar types of monitoring equipment on the privately owned systems in Ascension to ensure maintenance is happening.
"One thing about those single-family residential treatment plants: If you don't maintain them, if you don't do maintenance on them, they don't work," Daniel said.
Under the new regulatory concept, Daniel said, parish government would monitor the maintenance companies are keeping up with the individual plants.
In the recent talks, Daniel hasn't specifically discussed future fines for violations, as the model government, Harris County has, but parish officials say they expect to roll out the new rules in the coming months.