Septic System Surveys and Guidance
By Dave Neuswanger
July 12, 2018
More than two decades have passed since any systematic survey to determine the status of residential and commercial (resort) septic systems around Teal and Lost Land lakes. To my knowledge, no such survey has ever been performed around Ghost Lake, perhaps because so much shoreline there is in public ownership (National Forest).
In 1993, the Sawyer County Land and Water Conservation Department hired and supervised a summer intern (salary later reimbursed by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point) to inspect all septic systems on properties around Teal Lake. Of the 72 systems inspected, 59 passed (82%), 2 were questionable (3%), and 11 systems failed (15%). Some of the systems that passed were quite old. File records suggest that most of the failing systems were replaced within a short period of time.
In 1995, another summer intern was hired to inspect all septic systems on properties around Lost Land Lake. Of the 176 systems inspected, 94 passed (53%), 24 passed but did not conform to code (14%), 3 were inconclusive (2%), and 55 failed outright (31%).
In a February 11, 1997 letter to QLIA President Charlie Baumann, Sawyer County Assistant Sanitarian, Mert Maki, reported on the status of septic system upgrades around Lost Land Lake in the wake of the 1995 survey. By that time, it was judged that 60 (up from 55) systems had been in failing status. However, 50 of those failing systems (83%) had already been replaced in the 18 months since the survey; and the remaining 10 were pending repair or replacement. This rapid response by an overwhelming majority of Lost Land Lake septic system owners reflected a high commitment to maintaining good water quality in our lakes and safe drinking water in their private wells.
In June of 2018 I met with the current Sawyer County Sanitarian, Eric Wellauer (son of QLIA Past-President Jack Wellauer), to seek insight into the current status of septic systems around the Quiet Lakes. Based on Sawyer County file records, Eric was certain that all systems installed since 2000 met building codes at time of installation; and he suspects systems installed after 1995 (when science-based soil testing replaced simple percolation tests) were code compliant. That’s good news, though it does not mean that all systems would pass an inspection today, because even good systems have a life span of approximately 25 years if used as designed.
These days, by Wisconsin Administrative Code (SPS 383), septic systems with tanks and drainage fields must be inspected at least once every three years; and if the tank is 1/3 full of sludge, it must be pumped. Systems with holding tanks only (no drainage field) may need to be inspected more frequently and pumped before they overflow. Cabin owners who reside here only a few weeks a year may be able to pump at intervals greater than three years if their system was designed for year-round occupancy. But everyone should welcome and comply with the requirement to conduct triennial inspections. You can check your septic system maintenance history online by clicking on the following link:
We do not believe there is urgent need to conduct another full-blown survey of all septic systems around The Quiet Lakes because so many old, failing systems were replaced after the 1990s surveys; systems should be inspected every three years and often are inspected when properties change ownership; and nutrient levels in our lakes have not changed in 25 years. The DNR provides grants for such surveys on a very competitive basis up to $7,000 per waterbody, but the County must provide recruitment, hiring, training, and oversight of the college student interns who perform the inspections. Done right, this requires significant time that Sawyer County staff do not have because of budget cuts and unfilled vacancies. We will not add to their burden by pursuing any lake-wide septic system surveys at this time. Instead, the QLIA Executive Committee encourages all residential and commercial (resort) septic system owners to comply with the three-year inspection schedule, pump their tanks when needed, and renovate their systems at the end of their lifespan.
Speaking of lifespan, Eric Wellauer cautioned that any old steel septic tanks are now long past their expected lifespan and should be replaced immediately. Steel tanks pose a real threat to human safety when they rust to such an extent that the ground collapses above them. If you think you might have a steel tank, click on the link below to see why you should have it replaced… immediately!
If readers have any questions, Eric Wellauer encourages you to contact him or his colleagues at Sawyer County Zoning and Conservation, 10610 Main Street, Suite 49, Hayward, Wisconsin, 54843. The best way to arrange a visit with Eric is to e-mail him first at firstname.lastname@example.org in order to arrange a phone conversation at 715-634-8288.