Virginia health officials seeing ‘unprecedented demand’ for well and septic repair program

The state’s Department of Health has already allocated nearly half of the program’s total funding for low-income Virginians

By: - July 13, 2022 12:02 am

A septic tank pipe peeks out from a lawn. (Getty Images)

The Virginia Department of Health has already budgeted nearly half of its allocated funding for an assistance program aimed at helping low-income families repair failing wells and septic systems.

Lance Gregory, director of the agency’s division of water and wastewater services, said the surge of applications reflects the degree of need across the state, which hasn’t always been easy for health officials to assess. While the department approves roughly 2,000 repair permits a year, Gregory said a large number of Virginians simply never notify the department of failing systems, especially given the limitations of previous public funding.

“There have been other programs, other groups that do more targeted funding for septic repairs, but this is a blanket, across-the-state availability,” he added. “And that’s something that’s pretty unique.”

The Virginia General Assembly allocated $11.5 million in federal rescue funding last August for the program, which formally launched in February 2022. Within the first four and a half months, VDH received a total of 192 applications for 202 well and septic projects, which are expected to cost the state roughly $4.6 million.

VDH is putting a “soft pause” on applications later this week due to what the agency described as an “unprecedented level” of demand from individual homeowners, according to an online statement. Statewide, roughly 1.1 million homes in Virginia use septic systems and 700,000 are served by private wells, according to Gregory. 

“And a septic system has a finite lifetime — it’s usually about 30 to 35 years,” he said Tuesday after a presentation to the State Health Commissioner’s Advisory Council on Health Disparity and Health Equity. “So, at some point it fails, and the cost for those repairs can get pretty substantial.”

Failing to upgrade an aging septic system, though, can have significant health and environmental impacts. The systems — most currently found in rural homes that aren’t connected to municipal wastewater treatment plants — rely on underground tanks to treat wastewater from toilets, sinks and laundry machines. Over time, those tanks can clog with waste that hasn’t decomposed, causing systems to overflow into yards and surrounding waterways (flooding and sea level rise can also play a big role in septic failures).

There are obvious health risks to sewage backups in private homes, Gregory said. But the environmental impacts can also be serious, sending nitrogen, phosphorus, household waste and pathogens into surrounding waterways.

“One of the most concerning issues that arises from failing septic systems in the coastal zone is the fact that the pollutants they discharge, especially the bacteria and pathogens, can easily find their way into adjacent tidal waters,” the Virginia Institute of Marine Science wrote in a 2019 report. 

Some of those same waters are increasingly being used to raise shellfish including oysters and clams, researchers found, and high bacterial loads can force fisheries to shut down production. Sanitation issues also disproportionately impact Black communities in many areas of Virginia, including rural areas in the eastern part of the state, according to reporting by WHRO

For many low-income families, though, the cost of upgrades can be prohibitive. Gregory said septic repairs can range from $8,000 to $40,000, depending on site conditions and the type of system that’s installed. 

“Even $8,000 is tough, so obviously $40,000 is next to impossible for a lot of people,” he said. The program was specifically designed to assist vulnerable Virginians by restricting eligibility to residents making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level — an annual income of $55,100 for a family of four or $27,180 for an individual.

The majority of applicants so far have been elderly Virginians living on a fixed income, according to Gregory, and demand in the eastern region of Virginia has already outpaced the funding allocated to local health departments. While applicants aren’t required to disclose their demographic information, he also told the advisory council that roughly 36 percent of requests have come from Black families.

Nine improvement projects have already been completed since the program launched, 12 are under contract and another 32 are currently in the bidding process, Gregory said. And while a large share of applications have involved septic repairs, well installation and replacements are another significant focus. 

He particularly remembered a family in Southwest Virginia whose child got sick from water sourced from a private spring. The department is in the process of installing a private well to provide them with safer drinking water.

The unexpectedly high level of demand for the program is largely driving the department’s decision to temporarily pause applications. Gregory said VDH still hasn’t officially marketed the program, and there’s some concern that the agency could run out of money before it gets the chance to advertise across the state. 

High demand for contractors has been another barrier. Approved projects are bid out to private companies, but Gregory told the advisory council that it’s been challenging to match workers to the jobs.

“They already have a lot of work, and there’s not a lot of interest to come do this work or it’s going to be four to five months before they can get to it,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of bids that are well in excess of what a reasonable cost would be, so we’re having to put projects up for bid two, three, four times to get a reasonable estimate.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.