By Ted Shorack

The Bulletin

A map of the proposed exception area can be viewed at:

Deschutes County commissioners began considering a proposal Wednesday that would allow sewers in rural areas near La Pine and Sunriver to address potential groundwater contamination from nitrates.

A final decision is expected next month, but county commissioners expressed support for the idea, which is believed to be a solution to keep groundwater clean in the foreseeable future.

“We have to protect the groundwater,” said Commissioner Tony DeBone. “We do have good groundwater in the rural southern Deschutes County area, but we do have high groundwater and highly draining volcanic soils.” About a dozen people attended, but public comment at this session was not allowed.

State and federal officials studied the area in the late 1990s and determined nitrate levels in the groundwater could eventually exceed drinking water standards if left unaddressed. Nitrates arrive in the ground in wastewater that has been treated and discharged from septic systems.

“I am convinced we have a responsibility to protect the groundwater because of the unique circumstances that are in this particular area,” said Commissioner Tammy Baney.

The upcoming decision has been part of a several-year process. The Deschutes County Commission adopted a policy in 2008 requiring residents in the affected area to eventually use alternative treatment systems, which provide a more sophisticated filtration of wastewater before it is dispersed into the ground. The rule was overturned by voters in 2009.

A citizen advisory committee organized by the Department of Environmental Quality began to review other options in 2010. The committee eventually recommended sewers instead of the alternative systems.

County commissioners will vote next month on an ordinance that will make an exception to the Goal 11 statewide land use policy.

The goal prohibits local governments from allowing sewer systems in unincorporated areas. The point is to prevent urban sprawl and keep rural and urban areas distinct.

The county, DEQ and the state Department of Land Conservation and Development had to make a case for the exception. The crux of the argument centers on whether it is needed to prevent a “public health hazard.”

Baney said she understood why some residents balked at the notion that the groundwater is a hazard now but said the exception is being proactive to protect future drinking water.

Many residents who live within the proposed exception area have criticized the idea and fear the county will eventually require them to use a sewer system instead of septic tanks.

The proposed exception would not require property owners with septic systems to hook up to or create sewer systems but provide it as an option.

“It is not my wish as county government to come in and say, ‘Now you have to (use a) sewer, now you have to use this particular tool,’” Baney said Wednesday.

According to the county, about 15,000 of the lots in the southern part of the county were platted before land use laws were enacted in the 1970s. About half of them have been developed with septic systems and have drinking water wells.

An analysis of the area found that the water table can be between 2 and 30 feet below the ground surface.

County commissioners also expressed support Wednesday for continued monitoring of the groundwater.

“We really want to know what’s going on and what trends might be happening,” said DeBone.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,