On-site subsurface wastewater disposal systems (e.g., septic systems) can potentially transport pollutants from sewage to ground water. To help prevent this transport, nutrient-pathogen evaluations (NP evaluations) are required for certain proposed on-site wastewater disposal systems. Where required, conducting an NP evaluation is part of the application process to receive a permit to install a subsurface sewage disposal system.
An NP evaluation is a scientific evaluation of the water quality impacts of on-site subsurface sewage disposal (septic systems). The NP evaluation predicts whether the effluent from sewage disposal systems will be diluted enough to prevent ground water contamination. The NP evaluation includes compiling existing information, collecting site-specific information, and completing predictive contaminant modeling for ground water. The results depend on many variables, including aquifer characteristics, treatment system density and configuration, and ground water flow direction.
Purpose of the NP Evaluation
The NP evaluation's main purpose is to protect the quality of Idaho's ground water, as directed by the Ground Water Quality Rule (IDAPA 58.01.11.006). Specifically, NP evaluations are designed to achieve the following:
- Determine the appropriate number of on-site wastewater treatment systems for a given parcel of land.
- Direct the placement of the on-site wastewater treatment systems in a way that will not significantly degrade the quality of ground water or surface water resources.
When An Evaluation is Required
DEQ requires an NP evaluation for proposed central septic systems located in nitrate priority areas or over sensitive resource aquifers and for all proposed large soil absorption systems (LSAS). In addition, some of Idaho's public health districts and counties require NP evaluations for smaller on-site wastewater treatment systems. (A central system is any system that receives wastewater from two or more homes or buildings under separate ownership or receives more than 2,500 gallons per day of wastewater. A LSAS is a subsurface sewage disposal system designed to receive 2,500 gallons per day or more.)
DEQ or the public health district or counties may also require NP evaluations on parcels of land where unusual conditions or circumstances cause concern about surface water or ground water quality. These conditions include the following:
- Nutrient and/or pathogen contamination already exists and has the potential to create a health risk.
- Soil depth is shallow.
- A predominance of gravel or coarse-grained sediment exists.
- Ground water is close to the surface (10 feet or less).
- Fractured bedrock is close to the surface (10 feet or less).
Whether an NP evaluation is performed or not, all developments using on-site wastewater treatment systems are subject to the Rules Governing On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems (IDAPA 58.01.03) and the associated Technical Guidance Manual for Individual and Subsurface Sewage Disposal Systems.
Types of NP Evaluations
NP evaluations are Level 1 and Level 2. Depending on circumstances and the location of the proposed system, a developer may be required to perform a Level 1 evaluation, a Level 2 evaluation, or both.
The public health districts or DEQ may allow an abbreviated NP evaluation (Level 1) when site conditions or design factors warrant a review of preliminary information before determining the need for a more complete Level 2 evaluation. Level 1 evaluations may be considered under the following circumstances:
- Proposed lot sizes are unusually large.
- Site conditions warrant a review of the area of concern designation.
- Level 2 evaluation has been performed within a 0.5 mile radius of the proposed development, and site and design conditions are sufficiently similar.
DEQ has provided a nitrogen mass-balance spreadsheet to assess the expected nitrogen load. A simplified screening tool is used during the Level 1 evaluation to determine whether a more detailed Level 2 evaluation is needed. The mass-balance spreadsheet allows the NP professional to adjust lot sizes, change orientation with respect to ground water flow, and determine wastewater treatment options to minimize ground water impacts.
A Level 1 evaluation may suffice if the results of the mass-balance spreadsheet indicate a sufficiently low impact to ground water from nitrate, or data demonstrate that site conditions do not warrant the area of concern designation.
A Level 2 evaluation is more detailed than a Level 1 evaluation and is required whenever a Level 1 evaluation is determined to not be sufficient or when a Level 1 evaluation does not indicate sufficient protection of ground water quality. In this case, the developer may choose to conduct a Level 2 evaluation or may choose to add additional treatment measures to the system and conduct another Level 1 evaluation.
Outcomes of an NP Evaluation
An NP evaluation may show that effluent from the treatment system evaluated will not adversely impact surface water or ground water. In this case, the system is approved, and the permit application process may continue.
In other instances, the NP evaluation may show that the effluent may contaminate ground water or surface water. In these cases, additional measures may need to be taken to receive approval, such as providing advanced nutrient treatment systems or reconfiguring lots to maximize the dilution capability of the aquifer.
The ultimate outcome is providing wastewater treatment while protecting, or even restoring, the high quality of Idaho's water.