Over the last few weeks, there has been press coverage of the new rules applying to septic tanks, which will come into force on January 1, 2020.

To recap, these are known as the General Binding Rules and are designed to improve water quality. One of the main measures is that no septic tank should discharge into a watercourse. Where this currently occurs, and there is not the option to relocate the septic tank, the only likely solution is the installation of a small sewage plant or the addition of a drainage field.

Some owners will be blissfully unaware and will take no action until faced with prosecution.

If the offending system serves a single property and is located on land within the same ownership, the only difficulty should be the cost. However, septic systems serving many rural settlements were installed when the property was in single ownership, but the ownership may now be fragmented.

Multiple properties may be served by a non-compliant system located on third party land. From a legal perspective, the first step is to establish what agreements are already in existence. Hopefully, there will be a document in place detailing the division of the costs of management and maintenance of the existing system.

Again hopefully, the agreement will also cover the relationship with the owner of the land where the septic tank, and associated pipework, is located. This will likely cover access for management and maintenance. It may also cover the installation of a replacement system, but it could be very site specific, which may not be suitable for the required new system.

However, that would still be better than having no agreements at all. Casual agreements that work when dealing with a small bill for emptying the tank, may well collapse when faced with significant capital expenditure. And then there would be the issue of opening negotiations with the third-party landowner.

A new system may also bring new considerations. A small sewage plant will require an electric supply, so an easement may need to be negotiated. An upgraded septic tank may need a purpose-built drainage bed, which would involve significantly more land.