The Santa Fe City Council should move ahead with a plan to get about half the city’s residents off septic systems and onto a modern sanitary sewer system.
The effort, as city leaders have noted, wouldn’t be cheap and might run into opposition, but it’s the right thing to do, both to improve the city’s prospects for growth and to benefit the environment.
Home septic systems are widespread in the United States and can perform very well at removing bacteria from sewer discharge before it gets back into the environment. Assuming, that is, the systems have been properly installed and maintained, which is a bad assumption, according to numerous studies.
At least 20 percent of the systems fail early in their useful lives for various reasons, but continue in operation, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study. These are among the main sources of water pollution that can undermine the health of waterways, wildlife and even people.
And while septic systems can perform pretty well if they’re well taken care of, they always will be problems in areas that tend to get heavy rain and occasional flooding, that have porous soils and are very near bodies of water. All of that pretty well describes the coastal regions of Texas.
The biggest problems with septic systems, however, is density — having a lot of them in a relatively small area. The systems are fine for rural areas, but not for towns or cities of any size.
Santa Fe leaders and residents are facing an inevitable phase in the evolution of a city. Just as small cities eventually have to ban livestock, burning trash in barrels and discharging firearms, sooner or later they have to get everybody on a municipal sewer system.
None of those changes is universally popular and the switch to sewer can be especially unpopular because residents often have to pay to install lines on their property to reach city lines, which can be expensive for some. We don’t know whether that would be the case in Santa Fe, but it’s common for cities to do it that way.
Officials learned recently that the city would have to spend about $50,000 to hire an engineering firm to create a water and sewer master plan.
The city council, along with the Santa Fe Economic Development Corp. and the Water Control Improvement District No. 8, heard from engineering firm Kimley-Horn about the cost of the master plan and will now consider approving the concept at a future meeting, City Manager Joe Dickson said.
The $50,000 cost would cover a master utility plan and a land use plan and probably would be completed by the end of June or the beginning of July, Dickson said.
None of the three organizations approved hiring the engineering firm, but will probably consider the measure at the next meeting, which is Feb 22. Dickson said.
The plan would also address how the city could improve its water service.
The council should approve spending the $50,000 to create the master plan. With that, leaders might be able to get state and federal funds to cover some of the cost of improving the sewer system through one or more programs meant to reduce water pollution.
• Michael A. Smith