DEQ lays out strategy for groundwater protection around La Pine

By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin

LA PINE — State environmental officials gave their support Wednesday night for recommendations brought by a citizen committee on how to tackle the groundwater issue around La Pine.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality supports an exemption to state rules to allow for sewer systems outside the town’s urban growth boundary, the creation of a sanitary authority and a potential five-year moratorium on requiring advanced septic systems.

About 35 people showed up for the meeting Wednesday night in La Pine.

The DEQ also supports the recommendation to conduct more groundwater monitoring in an effort to understand where contamination is coming from and where it is going.

Porous, sandy soil and shallow aquifers combine to create the potential for groundwater problems around La Pine.

“We need to understand that our groundwater really is sensitive,” said John Blakinger, co-chairman of the committee.

Nitrate contamination in groundwater has been a concern for decades around La Pine, where a high density of homes use septic systems. The southern Deschutes County city itself has been on a sewer system since the late 1980s, but the situation has persisted in surrounding subdivisions.

The strategies laid out by the DEQ Wednesday night come from 10 recommendations released in July by the 11-member South Deschutes/North Klamath Groundwater Protection Steering Committee. The committee, whose members were appointed by the DEQ, met nearly 50 times over three years before disbanding in July.

“I think they have given us an outline for a plan of how to control groundwater contamination in this area,” said Eric Nigg, water quality manager for the DEQ in Bend.

After the DEQ explained its strategies for groundwater around La Pine, the discussion turned to what it would take to make them happen.

The exemption to allow for sewer systems would require county approval and would likely be the subject of public meetings over the summer, said Nick Lelack, community development director for the county.

Although the county and DEQ may support the creation of a sanitary authority, there must be a grass-roots effort from within the potential new district to make it happen. It is as yet unclear who might lead this effort.

People living around La Pine have balked at the costs and effectiveness of advanced septic systems required by the state to further protect the groundwater, so many at the Wednesday night meeting were happy to hear there could be a five-year reprieve on the requirement. But before that can happen, Nigg, the DEQ water quality manager, said the agency must approve the moratorium with its attorneys.

While the strategies outlined by the DEQ set forth a plan, the groundwater issue is far from settled.

“This is not going to be a short-term process,” said Al Bauer, 73, who lives in Newberry Estates near La Pine. “This is going to be a long, long time.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812; ddarling@bendbulletin.com.