Realtors, property owners continue to oppose tighter septic tank rules

PLANT: An aerial photo of the lagoon at the upgraded Umatac-Merizo Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves 500 GWA customers, is shown in January. Courtesy of Guam Waterworks Authority

Bill 404-35, which tightens regulations on septic tank systems built over the Groundwater Protection Zone, continues to prove divisive, as government officials back the measure while realtors and property owners oppose what they say is legislation that will hurt future development. 

The bill was introduced by Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee and is one of four intended to protect the Northern Guam Lens Aquifer. Bill 404 is intended to limit nitrate contamination in groundwater, which has been increasing in concentration, according to the Water and Environmental Research Institute of the Western Pacific, or WERI, at the University of Guam.

It is "well known" that leaking sewage lines and septic tank systems can produce nitrates, WERI Director John Jenson said during a second public hearing on Bill 404 Tuesday. 

"The question is what's responsible for the rise?" he added. "During the two past decades (Guam Waterworks Authority) has been working to reduce sewage line leakage and has a plan in place for maintaining and continuing the reduction of sewage line leakage."

It would be reasonable to assume that nitrate contributions from sewer line leaks have been decreasing over the last two decades, Jenson said. 

On the other hand, "individual disposal and septic tank systems (have) probably been growing" and are the likely source of nitrate contamination, he added.  

Nitrate discharge from these systems can be eliminated only by replacement – either by connecting to a sewer line or by replacing the conventional septic tanks with modern treatment systems that can reduce nitrate to nitrogen gas, according to WERI. 

Property owners and realtors opposing Bill 404 recommended seeking alternatives to the restrictions proposed in the legislation. 

"Is there a way that something could be done, or legislation, to help fund Guam Waterworks (Authority) in improving the sewer system or the sewer lines and make them available in places throughout north where this aquifer will be affected," said Joseph Lopez, a longtime resident who developed property for 15 years, and who also said Bill 404 would have a catastrophic effect on the real estate industry. 

Before Lopez testified, GWA General Manager Miguel Bordallo had noted that the agency does have a program outlined to eliminate septic tanks by expanding the sewer collection system. However, this will take time. 

"So we have funding in place to expand the sewer collection system by 5,000 linear feet every year beginning in 2023," Bordallo said. "Between now and then we're working on a study to formalize the septic tank elimination program and also to work on the initial designs."

Under Bill 404, septic tanks built prior to its enactment will be grandfathered in by the law, but new septic tank systems cannot be installed if the land is located in the Groundwater Protection Zone and if a public sewer is available, regardless of the size of the lot. 

If there is no connection available, the bill prohibits new septic tanks if the lot is less than half an acre. 

In both cases, the restrictions apply regardless of whether the land is part of a parental subdivision, which would otherwise allow a landowner's descendants to circumvent requirements normally applicable to improvements made on subdivided land.

Lee said Tuesday that her bill is meant to address this exception, which "some experts, including government lawyers, call a loophole." 

"Today, if you own an acre over the aquifer, you cannot build a septic tank. Today, if you own a half-acre on top of the NGLA that wasn't parentally subdivided, you cannot build a septic tank," Lee said at the beginning of the hearing. 

But landowner DonaMila Taitano said the bill is unfair because her property doesn't have access to a sewage line nor does it have close enough access to other infrastructure to build a home.

"Having this bill put up right now without any infrastructure buildup by the government to ensure everyone has easy access to this, which will cause me to find the moneys to put in a sewage line before I can put up a house, is unfair," Taitano said. 

She also called for more studies on effluent and septic tanks, adding that she believed the bill is coming too early. 

Jenson said Tuesday that WERI has not studied the correlation between the density of septic tanks and nitrate trends in any particular location, but Lee noted that it wouldn't be right not to act just because local experts don't know everything about sources of contamination.

"We know enough to act," she said.

The next hearing will take place on Dec. 9.

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