JACKSON OAKS - Rotating sprinklers sprayed treated water from an aerobic septic system in a back yard neighboring Don Ward as he mowed his yard within Jackson Oaks subdivision.
The spray tailed into Ward's yard through a chain link fence and Ward's annoyance to that fact showed on his face. Two of Ward's other neighbors have similar systems that spray close to his property.
The smell isn't strong today, he said. But in the summer or when the wind is right, he knows when his neighbors' systems are distributing wastewater.
Sewer systems in the subdivision have been a concern for residents for years.
Decades-old septic tanks seep or have become inundated with sludge and tree roots and are plagued with various problems that require continuous maintenance. Chlorine treated water from aerobic systems takes time to dissipate or soak into the predominantly clay soil.
It all is subject to gravity.
Throughout the community of around 300 homes many backyards, low spots between homes and ditches along driveways and the streets show the signs of flowing water.
Recent rains caused much of the flow but the community's history of septic problems and standing sewage in back yards raises serious health concerns for residents like Ward.
"People don't understand the gravity of the problem," he said. "I'm not able to enjoy my property. I can't barbecue outside. My 5-year-old grandson can't run around barefoot back here."
Residents have met with more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies and nonprofits in an attempt to find a solution over the past decade. The community group has hired lawyers and consultants to walk them through a maze of legal and environmental considerations for developing a stand-alone sewer system.
Resident Nola Chandler has been spearheading an effort to create a sewer treatment plant and system for the area since 2005. In 2008, residents considered various options, including state and federal grants or paying to tie into other existing systems.
In 2008, resident meetings to discuss community options and meet with professionals and attorneys would draw almost 100 people. But years of failure to move forward with any solution has left residents skeptical and disengaged.
Two residents showed up at the most recent meeting with engineers and a consultant specializing in rural development.
Mrs. Chandler said around 80 residents had signed on to support accepting the grant and that she would begin visiting door-to-door to discuss the grant and gather signatures.
"We're at the do or die point," she said. "People support it. They want a solution to the problem. We just have to let them know the latest option and that it's real."
Harold Hunter, Texas state coordinator for Communities Unlimited, which provides technical assistance to help small rural communities solve water and wastewater problems, said the community is close to creating an independent sewer facility and system.
The community, with Hunter's help, has worked through the application process for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program.
Hunter said the community effectively started from scratch in an attempt to solve long-standing problems related to rural septic systems. He said the community is a few steps away from finalizing the grant and that it would require resident support and buy-in by way of signatures.
"They're really close," he said. "I know it has taken years and many people have given up on this happening but they're close and need to be part of the process now more than ever."
But a looming question for many residents is the monthly fee.
Hunter said the USDA discourages consultants from providing possible monthly billing costs to build and maintain the system.
Mrs. Chandler said they are required to consider 100 percent of the cost to build and maintain a sewer system would fall to residents. Their estimates for a $4.3 million investment would translate into $100 to $110 monthly bills, which she said would be unacceptable to most residents.
But the USDA grant would cover up to 75 percent of the cost and likely mean a reasonable monthly fee for sewer service, Mrs. Chandler said. Mrs. Chandler believes it would be worth the cost for most residents who are spending money twice a year to have septic tanks pumped or pay other maintenance costs for problematic systems or are considering paying thousands of dollars for an aerobic system.
Hunter has also helped residents negotiate with the city of Tyler, which has Certificates of Convenience and Necessity for the area.
The CCN means Tyler has jurisdiction and first right of service because the community lies within its extraterritorial jurisdiction. The city agreed to allow the community to proceed with caveats related to inspection and groundwork for terms of a possible purchase in the future.
Hunter also helped the community navigate a maze of state environmental conditions and continuously changing requirements for applicants for the rural development program.
"There are so many parts of the process that can discourage people from going through the process," he said. "We're here to help them to get them through those one by one."
Mrs. Chandler said she is encouraged by the response from the community in the past. She said the area including Jackson Oaks, Jackson Heights and Jackson Elementary School (part of Chapel Hill Independent School District), where the highest concentration of residents live, would benefit greatly from the treatment facility and access to sewer.
Mrs. Chandler said there were conversations about Chapel Hill Independent School District donating land to build the treatment plant. Chapel Hill School Board President Glen Elliot said he wasn't aware of any discussions about land but recalled past discussions within the community about the wastewater treatment plant.
"I think it would be a great benefit to the community and (Jackson Elementary School)," he said. "That would be a consideration for the whole board and to my knowledge we haven't had any formal discussions or taken any action."
Jim Huggins, of Rosedale Environmental Services, the administrator of Smith County's on-site sewage facility (septic and aerobic systems) ordinances, said a private sewer and wastewater treatment plant would address problems associated with outdated septic systems and concerns with aerobic treatment systems. He said complaints about odors and worries about raw sewage are indicative of rural areas where development brings a large number of residences in close proximity.
Ward said he has been hoping for a solution for decades. He's lived in the neighborhood since 1973 and said problems have been increasing since the mid-1990s as existing houses aged and more homes were built.
"People in this neighborhood have been ready to address the problem for a long time," he said. "It's come a long way and taken a long time to get this far. Now we just need people to buy in to it."