Beetle-killed trees looked at as contributing factor in Grand County septic system failures |

Beetle-killed trees looked at as contributing factor in Grand County septic system failures

Will Bublitz
Grand County, Colorado

Is the death of thousands of trees during the ongoing pine beetle epidemic in Grand County, Colorado, causing the failure of residential septic systems?

The short answer is that local authorities do not know for certain, but they suspect that it might be having an impact in some areas of the county.

However, they caution that no one should jump to the conclusion that their overflowing septic tank has been caused by it. There are several other reasons why residential leech fields may fail.

The theory that links septic system failures to the epidemic is that the thousands of dead trees are no longer absorbing ground water from snowmelt or rainfall. Because there is more water in the ground, the excess moisture is causing residential septic systems to overflow.

“We can’t put our finger on that as the cause,” said Scott Penson, Grand County’s chief building inspector, “but it could be a contributing factor.”

Penson cited recent septic problems at the Fourway Estates subdivision on County Road 8 as an example where excess groundwater may have resulted in some leech field failures. Of the subdivision’s 22 homes, 10 had septic system failures.

“They did a lot of tree removal because the trees had died, but there is no scientific proof that the lack of trees caused the failures,” Penson said. “It could have been any number of things, including that the septic system was installed in the 1960s or 70s and was closing in on its expected lifespan. But it still makes sense to me that there was more water in the ground because the trees were no longer there to absorb it.”

If the dead trees/ground water connection is the culprit in the subdivision’s leech field failures, Penson described it as an “isolated incident.” He emphasized that there are several other reasons why septic systems fail.

“The age of the system is often the cause,” he said. “Anywhere between 25 to 30 years is the average lifespan of a leech field.

“Another cause is no regular maintenance. Septic tanks have to be pumped every two to five years, otherwise solids get into the field and plug them up.

“Also pouring household chemicals such as bleach into the system will kill bacteria which helps break down solids.

“And flushing other things such as cigarette butts and cat litter down the toilet are not good for septic systems and can plug them up.”

If a septic system does overflow, Penson recommends that homeowners have their septic tank pumped immediately.

“After it’s pumped, if the water comes back, it’s an indication that the leech field is saturated,” he said. “If someone feels their septic system is in a state of failure, they should contact me at the Grand County Building Department. My primary focus is to get the system repaired, whatever the cause.”

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