Editorial: La Pine makes important change for clean water

March 31, 2018
Editorial: La Pine makes important change for clean water

Wastewater contamination of the Deschutes aquifer has been debated and debated in the area around La Pine. It’s unlikely to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but the city’s $25 million water and sewer project holds promise as a good solution for the neighborhoods involved.

Both septic and sewer systems can do a good job of eliminating waste. Septic systems can create environmental problems if they aren’t properly maintained by homeowners. Older septic systems can be particularly faulty. But it’s important to remember that sewers can have failures, too. Sewers have tended to be favored where possible because they have public oversight.

The challenge around La Pine has been that a high water table can make it harder to avoid contamination from nitrates from septic systems leaching into the aquifer of the Deschutes River. Nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants and other problems for older children and adults.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, “the U.S. Geological Survey and Deschutes County have determined that the safety of the groundwater in southern Deschutes and northern Klamath counties is threatened by nitrate contamination from traditional onsite septic wastewater treatment systems,” the DEQ says.

Money is always an issue. The cost of replacing existing septic with sewer gets expensive. For instance, the La Pine project is for both water and sewer for about 275 homes. It does do more than just extend pipes. It is adding future capacity. But the overall project cost is about $90,000 per home. It’s not going to cost homeowners anywhere near that amount. Federal and state grants and loans are going to pick up $22 million of the $25 million cost. The city is chipping in a couple million. Existing ratepayers will also be paying more a month — $5 to $10 for a single family home. And of course, people who weren’t on the city system have to start paying a monthly bill for any new service.

Nobody wants to pay higher bills. But the city of La Pine has tried to structure this effort to improve clean water and protect the Deschutes aquifer without too much of a burden on the community.

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An aerial view of a body of water.