Approximately 20 percent of New York households use a sanitary septic system. There are over 16,000 throughout Cayuga County. With the recent emphasis on reducing nutrients flowing into our streams and eventually our lakes — to minimize harmful algal blooms (HABs) — inspecting and maintaining a septic system is vital. While experts believe these systems contribute less than 2 percent of the overall phosphorus loading to Owasco Lake specifically, we need to reduce the influx wherever we can. Though we have city sewer lines serving the Owasco Lake shoreline lots in part of Fleming and all of Owasco, there are still many shoreline septic systems around the whole lake.

Fortunately for us in Cayuga County, all septic systems are required to have a recurring inspection. This county has the oldest and best inspection program in all of New York state, and maybe the U.S. Shoreline properties are inspected every two years, and others are three, five or seven years. The annual failure rate is between 1.5 and 2 percent for the whole county. Shoreline systems have an even lower rate since more frequent inspections highlight possible problems that are addressed sooner. Since New York state does not require recurring inspections, many counties do not have them. Some only require an inspection when a new system is installed. While Onondaga County does not have countywide recurring inspections, all the watershed properties of Otisco Lake and Skaneateles Lake are inspected regularly by water purveyor officials. The Seneca County Department of Health does not require recurring inspections, nor does the Tompkins County Health Department. About 25 percent of the Owasco Lake watershed lies within Tompkins County.

Back to the money teaser above, there are two grant programs to assist property owners with the inspection fee and with possible remediation of a failing system. The first program has funding to pay for 70 sanitary code inspections for Owasco Lake shoreline properties that are due this fall. This grant is administered by the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District. If you are interested, contact Valerie Horning at (315) 252-4171 ext 3. Since you will be saving the cost of the inspection fee, they suggest you apply this savings toward having your septic tank pumped out. Depending on your tank size and number of household members, the Cayuga County Health Department recommends all tanks be pumped out every three to five years. If not done regularly, the tank can fill up with sludge and scum. This material will clog your leach field, create large replacement costs and allow excess nutrients to enter the lake directly, or its watershed. If you don’t remember when your tank was last pumped, have it done. Recently, a local citizen discovered their tank had not been emptied in 28 years! If a failing or soon-to-be failing system is found during an inspection, owners may qualify for reimbursement of up to 50 percent of eligible remediation or upgrade costs up to $10,000 from the new state Septic Replacement Program. Cayuga County is included in the priority areas eligible due to known impairments to drinking water sources: Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles lakes. Again, reducing nutrients from all sources is the goal to minimizing HABs and their possible harmful toxins. For more info about the state Septic Replacement Program, contact the Cayuga County Environmental Health Division at (315) 253-1405.