Clean Water News & Stories

Septic or Sewer? Keeping the Watershed Free of Sewage

When you flush your toilet, everything in the bowl should (hopefully) be sent away from your bathroom and your home. For many people in Washington County, those contents head to a water resource recovery facility operated by Clean Water Services. For others, it is held in a septic tank. While these tanks are underground, out of sight, and usually out of mind, it’s important to make sure they are working properly. A malfunctioning septic system not only threatens your health and safety but can impact your neighbors and the environment.

Washington County has more than 240,000 homes, according to the most recent U.S. Census. While that includes newer homes and apartments, many of those homes were built before Clean Water Services (back when we were known as the United Sewerage Agency) built the public sewer infrastructure we use today. That means homeowners had no choice but to put in a septic system.

sewer or septic

Septic or Sewer: What’s the difference?

A conventional septic system works by collecting wastewater in an underground tank and filtering it through a drainfield. The drainfield uses stone or gravel and geofabric material (similar to landscaping fabric) to keep contaminants out of the groundwater and local environment. A sewer lateral works by taking wastewater from a home or business directly to a public line that leads to a treatment facility. Clean Water Services cleans and recovers valuable resources from your used water before returning it to the Tualatin River. 

As properties redevelop or old septic systems fail, owners of these properties are required to switch from septic to sewer if the home is within 300 feet of the public line. This requirement helps safeguard local streams and groundwater from contamination and protect the public from potential health hazards.

For homes that aren’t near a public line, homeowners are responsible for the maintenance, repairs, and replacement of septic systems. While the lifespan of a septic system is typically about 25-30 years, it’s important to know how to spot system failures. One of the most obvious signs of a septic failure is sewage backing up into the home. Other signs aren’t as obvious, like pools of water or soggy spots near your drainfield, gurgling sounds in drains, soapy or foamy discharges on the property, or even areas of flourishing plant growth, especially near a drainfield. (Remember, Clean Water Services makes fertilizer and plant food, thanks to the nutrients you provide!)

If a septic system is failing and discharging untreated waste directly into groundwater, there can be harmful pathogens impacting water quality. That can affect nearby drinking water wells, surface water, and local streams and rivers. The ripple effect then impacts local wildlife, people recreating, and the safety of drinking water.

That’s why Clean Water Services is serious about sewage. If you’re looking to connect to the public line, or repair or replace your septic system, find out how to get the appropriate permits. If multiple homes in one area are ready to connect to the public system, homeowners can request a Sanitary Local Improvement District.

Financial Assistance Available Now 

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) awarded $1 million to CWS as a grant. CWS is partnering with Washington County to use those funds to help low-to-moderate income households pay for the costs of repairing, replacing, maintaining, or decommissioning their septic tank and connecting to the public sewer system, through the Onsite Septic Financial Aid Program

The money comes from the $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the 2021 Oregon Legislature allocated to the DEQ. ARPA funds are intended to address water quality and public health concerns and economic hardships that were caused or worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Homeowners in Washington County with under 80% of the median family income who have septic tanks may qualify for up to $25,000. Homeowners making above 80% may qualify for up to $5,000. Applications are available via the Washington County website and must be received by May 1, 2024. The only eligibility documentation required is proof of income from the previous year.    

Applications will be prioritized according to the number of sewer hookups needed in a neighborhood, income level, and overall need.   Questions? Read our FAQ.