Fighting Water Softener Bans

Nationwide legislation regarding softener discharge impacts dealers

Dealers are rightfully concerned about the spread of legislation prohibiting water softener discharge into city sewers and septic systems. Although California is the center of industry efforts to protect the market against arbitrary bans, in the last two years several other states have issued rules prohibiting septic tank discharge.

Dealers in many states, not just California, are rightfully concerned about the spread of legislation prohibiting water softener discharge into city sewers and septic systems. Although California is the center of industry efforts to protect the market against arbitrary bans, in the last two years several other states have issued rules prohibiting septic tank discharge.

Texas, Kentucky and Montana all recently rewrote state septic tank regulations. These revisions primarily addressed manufacturing and installation specifications to address the growing use of on-site wastewater systems as the population moves further and further away from metropolitan areas that rely on a centralized wastewater and sewer system.

However, all three states included restrictions on softener brine within pages of other recommendations for improving the reliability of on-site wastewater disposal systems--both traditional septic and the newer aerobic types. Because softeners were not a major issue to the regulators, none of the three states included the home water treatment industry as part of task forces set up to hear the views of stakeholders.

Therefore, dealers in all three states were caught off guard. In Texas and Montana, the regulations already had been passed by the appropriate state agencies after several public hearings. As an outgrowth of the Texas ban, the Water Quality Association (WQA) subscribed to a new electronic regulatory tracking service and discovered yet another proposal in Kentucky less than a week before the state's final hearing and passage of the rule.

Once local dealers found out about proposed or final regulations prohibiting brine discharge, all three states treated the industry's concerns differently. Comparing the situations shows, on the one hand, how difficult it is to influence agencies once the regulators have their minds made up. On the other hand, it also shows that the industry almost always will get a better reception from elected officials whose constituents are served by local water treatment dealers and vote them in or out.

For example, Kentucky legislators raked environmental agency officials over the coals for even introducing restrictions of softeners. With an eye towards possible electoral consequences, the state Senate and Assembly members pointed out that every legislative district in the state would be affected by the new regulations. They sharply questioned the agency regulators about how much salt entered the groundwater compared to other sources and what data they had to back up the prohibition. Although the new regulations were in the final stages of approval, the Kentucky Department of Environmental Quality quickly withdrew the softener language when faced with the outrage of legislators.

In Texas, local dealers first met with the Texas agency responsible for restrictions after septic prohibitions had been passed. Although there is a shortage of scientific research on the issue, Texas dealers presented the WQA septic tank study, as well as third-party evidence that softeners, if installed and properly maintained, did not cause septic tank failures in themselves. Dealers tapped into the state's formal process to petition the agency for a review. They made little progress over months of discussion.

So, the Texas dealers decided to sponsor legislation that would override the agency rules. The legislation, which also mandates that dealers install only demand-regenerated softeners, passed in spring of 2003.

Dealers in Montana are working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in an effort to have septic discharge prohibitions either rescinded or revised. Much progress has been made, but this time, it's local sanitarians that are holding up resolution of the problem. A couple of counties persist in advocating restrictions that would effectively eliminate the ability of iron filter and other problem water systems, as well as aerobic systems, to discharge into the septic field.

The lesson? It's better to catch the problem before it happens. Once it turns into a crisis situation, elected officials normally will give dealers a fairer hearing. It is a great strength of the industry that in states where it has a solid presence, almost every state electoral district will have voters who are either employees or consumers of POE companies.

Meanwhile, protect your own market by keeping track of proposals in your state regarding septic systems by visiting websites, reading state registers and asking agencies and officials to keep you informed.

Carlyn Meyer is the director of public affairs for the Water Quality Association, Lisle, Ill. For additional information, visit www.wqa.org; 630-505-0160.

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