La Pine groundwater talks continue

State wants action in five years on decades-old contamination

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin / @EGlucklich

The issue of nitrate contamination in La Pine’s groundwater is technically older than the city itself.

Nearly 10 years before La Pine’s 2007 incorporation, federal lawmakers secured millions to study just how much nitrogen from human waste was seeping into soil, the result of poorly built septic systems in a couple of hundred properties across the area.

The issue has grown in urgency as the population has swelled in and around the city, prompting concerns the nitrogen could seep into the city’s groundwater and spread to the Deschutes and Little Deschutes rivers. Nitrogen tends to speed up algae growth, which can produce a variety of toxins.

But numerous studies, several committees and more than 50 public meetings haven’t brought the city much closer to a resolution today than in the late-1990s.

Economic worries, conflicting orders from Deschutes County and the state, and an age-old wariness of government intrusion into private lives have slowed the issue to a standstill for years.

In all, the issue boils down to roughly 200 homes with subpar septic systems, La Pine City Manager Rick Allen said this week. Most of the properties are clustered around Huntington, Burgess and Cagle roads and Glenwood Drive.

Replacing the septic systems could cost each homeowner $10,000 to $20,000, Allen said. Many can’t afford it.

The state wants a broader fix, meanwhile, looking to replace the city’s old sewage system with modern water and sewer lines, which would essentially force residents to hook up to the new system. A 2009 study put a likely price tag of the broader sewage overhaul at $5 million to $6 million, though that figure could be different today, and where the money would come from is uncertain.

“Under the rules that are in place throughout south Deschutes County, anyone on a septic system has to upgrade to a nitrate-reducing system,” Allen said.

Grants could ease the burden on the city and residents by as much as $1 million on the full-scale overhaul, Allen said, but “only if the city agrees we are going to move forward,” Allen said.

“We can’t say we’re going to look at what might get done in the next decade. It has to be five years or less.”

That’s because the state has grown increasingly concerned about nitrate contamination, its public health impact and possible effects on fish in the Deschutes River.

This month, Allen led a group of officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Water Resources Department, a representative of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office and others on a tour of the neighborhoods, part of a larger discussion of La Pine issues.

Reached this week, DEQ spokesman Greg Svelund said the agency and the city were working on an agreement to delay the requirement for individual septic upgrades while talks on the citywide upgrades continue.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to implement” the broad overhaul, he said. Of the proposal to hold off on the individual septic fixes, Svelund said, “We’re taking those recommendations pretty seriously.”

The distrust of any sort of regulation has also slowed progress.

During the tour this month, Allen said many longtime residents around La Pine moved there to get away from government, only to find it land on the doorstep when the city incorporated.

Deschutes County sparked outrage in 2008 when it passed an ordinance requiring residents on septic systems in the area to pay for their upgrades, should they be required. The measure was overturned in a county vote the next year, but the state has since taken the lead from the county on the groundwater issue and wants the fixes in the next five years.

“This isn’t the type of project where neighbors on their own are just going to come together and say, ‘Let’s solve this problem,’” Allen said. “I think it’s too complicated. There are too many diverse opinions, and ultimately some public agency is going to have to take the lead to move these discussions along.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com