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Septic to Sewer Conversion: Kicking the Can Down the Road Only Exacerbates the Problem 

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Bend, as a rapidly growing city, has a lot of growing pains.

Case in point: the long, drawn-out saga of homeowners forced to connect to new sewer lines as those lines come online. The issue dates back several decades, to at least 1998, when the City of Bend faced the dilemma of whether to annex certain neighborhoods in southeast Bend—thereby making those neighborhoods subject to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's 300-foot rule.

Under that rule, counties cannot issue permits for repairs to septic systems, if the home is within 300 feet of a sewer line. Back in 1998, the City of Bend annexed neighborhoods, including Kings Forest and Desert Woods, which triggered the 300-foot rule in that area. Then the recession hit and talk of creating a Local Improvement District or other support went by the wayside. Call it a case of kicking the can down the road. Today, with the Southeast Interceptor in place, homeowners in southeast Bend find themselves faced with the challenge of hooking up, should their septic systems fail. It's not a pretty proposition and comes at a cost—but by working together, the City of Bend and its Septic to Sewer Advisory Committee have come up with a set of proposals that would see no homeowner losing their home due to inability to pay for conversion. The conversion process is proposed to come from a mix of funds from homeowners as well as public funds. At some point, a large contingent of community leaders realized that this issue can no longer be kicked down the road.

Now, enter at least one recently elected county commissioner who believes more finagling with the State of Oregon or kicking the can down the road might once again help those homeowners avoid hooking up.

At the Aug. 20 meeting of the Deschutes County Commission, Commissioner Phil Henderson proposed the rather unrealistic idea of getting the state Department of Environmental Quality to change or relax its rule, as opposed to moving forward with this long, drawn-out process afoot for at least 20 years in Bend. Henderson has likewise showed support for Deschutes County, alone—and ostensibly at cost to taxpayers— battling the state's land use laws as they pertain to exclusive farm use land east of Bend. This from the same commissioner who's criticized other Deschutes County commissioners for spending too much time in Salem.

As City Councilor Barb Campbell wrapped up her comments at that commission meeting, Henderson said to her, "I'm speaking as a citizen. I've lived here longer than you have," sharing that he's lived in his home for the past 20 years—a home that happens to be affected by the advent of the Southeast Interceptor sewer line. Since he's lived in that home for 20 years, we think it's safe to say he's been aware of both the regulatory and financial challenges that come with the advent of a sewer line in southeast Bend.

It should also be safe to say that he understands that things get more costly as time goes on. Septic to sewer conversion projects that took place in other Bend neighborhoods from 2002 to 2005 cost far less than the estimated cost of the conversions today, and the costs will only go up. One Septic to Sewer Committee board member estimates that construction costs go up by 5 to 7 percent each year.

While we understand that it can be difficult for a county commissioner to remove the hat of homeowner when faced with the potential of his own costly sewer conversion, we believe his role as salaried, elected county commissioner, tasked with following state regulations, should come first—especially inside the confines of a county commission meeting.

Asking the Oregon DEQ to change an administrative rule based on the concerns of one group of neighbors in one part of the state seems unrealistic—especially given that this issue has dragged on for over 20 years. Much effort and collaboration has gone into finding a realistic solution to the septic to sewer conversion issue, and our elected officials at the city, county and otherwise should recognize that collaboration, and stop proposing more ways to kick the can down the road.

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