Beneath manicured, green lawns, a problem is brewing. Sooner or later, all of the septic systems in the city of Cape Girardeau will fail, local health officials say.
Most buildings in the city are served by city sewers. But city officials have discovered there are 333 structures that aren't. Most of those structures are residences -- many of them pricey homes with well-landscaped yards on streets like Lakeshore Drive and Sylvan Lane.
Those structures and their property owners are served by septic systems in which sewage flows through a pipe into concrete or steel containers buried underground. Effluent then flows from the tank into a system of pipes with holes that allows the sewage to be gradually distributed into the soil, where it is destroyed by the bacteria in the ground.
Few problems have been reported so far with septic systems in the city. But that's no consolation to Ann Elledge, supervisor of environmental public health in the Cape Girardeau County health department.
"Eventually any septic system is going to fail," she said. "You eventually get to a point where the lines get clogged and the ground no longer can absorb the effluent," Elledge said.
A well-maintained septic system can last 25 to 30 years, she said. But many people don't adequately maintain their systems, causing them to fail even sooner.
Unlike rural areas of the county where property owners have enough land in many cases to pipe the waste to another piece of ground when problems surface, city residents typically have small tracts of land and don't have room to put in another septic field, Elledge said.
Within the limits
The septic systems in the city aren't new, she said. They were installed when the buildings they serve were outside the city limits. With voluntary annexations, the growing city has taken in these areas.
"What we have is 333 problems," said Mayor Jay Knudtson, who calls septic systems "a barbaric means" of sewage disposal.
The ultimate solution is to hook up these buildings to the city's sewer system, both Knudtson and Elledge said.
But doing so will be costly, according to a recent study by a committee of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission. The committee, aided by city planning and engineering staff, estimates it would cost $4.6 million to extend sewers to all 333 structures. But that estimate doesn't include related costs such as lift stations, service connections and pavement repairs.
The buildings are scattered throughout 34 areas of the city.
Besides all those structures on septic systems, the city study found that 19 structures were connected to city sewers but mistakenly weren't being billed for sewer service. Those customers now are being billed, officials said.
The city would have to pay the bill initially to extend sewers, but ultimately the cost would be borne by the affected property owners, who would be tax billed for it over 10 years.
City officials say the city doesn't have the money to do all the work at one time, and they recognize it would be a financial burden on property owners. Knudtson said it would have to be done in phases.
"We just don't know how quickly we can get there," the mayor said.
The city council has asked the city staff to study the issue and report back within 30 days with suggestions on how to tackle the problem.
Waiting for problems
Elledge said the most practical solution may be for the city to allow septic systems to remain until sewage problems surface and then require those property owners to hook up to the city sewer system.
City planner Kent Bratton said it might not be economically feasible to extend sewers to an area to serve one or two homes. "You have to use some common sense," he said.
Sharon McDowell is tired of all the talk. She and her husband, Bob, have been battling a failing septic system at their home in the 2300 block of Perryville Road for three years.
The McDowells and a neighbor, Ruth Ellen Holdman -- who also has a failing septic system -- hope to hook up to a new city sewer line that has been built across the street to serve a new residential subdivision.
City officials are considering such a sewer project in place of a plan drawn up last year that would have extended sewers along the west side of the road to serve the McDowell and Holdman homes but also included neighboring property owners with working septic systems who don't want to foot the bill.
Sharon McDowell said she can't wait to get on the city sewer system. The McDowells currently have to have their septic tank pumped out regularly just to keep it working at all.
"Sometimes we have to clean it out every other week at $90 a pop," she said.
She's not looking forward to winter, when the ground freezes up, making it harder for effluent to drain into the soil. If the septic system gets too full, sewage backs up into her home.
"We have to conserve water use," she said. That means conserving water when doing laundry and taking showers.
"Our whole neighborhood smells like sewage on some evenings," she said.
McDowell said she wants city sewer whatever the cost.
"I just think that anyone who lives within the city limits should be hooked up to city sewer. The ground can only hold so much," she said.
But neighbors Bob and Julie Pastrick say the city shouldn't force them to hook up to a city sewer system when their septic system is working properly.
Julie Pastrick estimated it could cost them $20,000 to hook up to city sewers. The city, she said, shouldn't make them pay for other people's sewage problems.
Bratton, the city planner, said city officials at this point haven't decided if the Pastricks will have to hook up to the city sewer system.
The discussion comes as the county commission looks to enact a law that would give the Cape Girardeau County health department more control in regulating septic systems throughout the county including inside city limits. That's in contrast to most county ordinances which only apply to unincorporated areas.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on Monday on whether to approve the proposed ordinance, which has the backing of county health officials.
The regulations would force septic system installers and homeowners to obtain licenses and permits, or else be prosecuted in court where they could face up to a year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine. Those putting in septic systems would have to obtain a $125 permit from the county health department on each job.
Existing septic systems would be grandfathered in, but property owners will be required to apply for a permit in order to modify or repair any existing system found to be a nuisance. Punishment for violating that requirement includes up to a year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine.
Septic systems already come under state regulations and city nuisance laws, but the proposed county law would provide another enforcement tool for the city to use in dealing with sewage problems, city officials said.
If the county commission adopts the proposed ordinance, the city likely will follow suit, city officials said. The council could enact more stringent regulations than the county, but city officials said it would be more practical to simply adopt the county regulations.
335-6611, extension 123