A bay-friendly way to flush

New nitrogen-reducing septic systems help keep Chesapeake health from going down the drain

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Feb 17, 2007

Ed Allenby’s septic system appears like any other.

It’s out of sight, buried underground, treating his sewage and allowing it to slowly percolate out into the groundwater.

But there’s a very big difference — Mr. Allenby’s system has extra steps that drastically cut down the amount of nitrogen in the effluent. Nitrogen is a key pollutant that harms the Chesapeake Bay.

“It was more expensive, but we thought it would be better for water quality,” he said. “We’ve had excellent results.”

Mr. Allenby had the advanced system installed in 2003 before moving into his home along Aberdeen Creek south of Annapolis. The old system was failing, and when he started doing the paperwork to put in a new system, county health officials pitched him the idea of trying a nitrogen-removing system.

Nitrogen pollution is a problem in the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. Too much nitrogen feeds algae blooms, which lead to the bay’s oxygen-deprived “dead zones.”

“If everyone were to do this, you think how you’d contribute to cleaning up the bay,” said Mr. Allenby, who is vice president of development for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Health and environmental officials want exactly that — more people putting in advanced septic systems, especially near the bay and its rivers.

To sweeten the deal, they are offering generous grants funded by the $30 “flush fee” that property owners pay each year.

The flush fee — officially called the Bay Restoration Fund — is funding grants for homeowners to upgrade conventional septics to nitrogen-removing septics. Or it will pay the difference between conventional and nitrogen-removing for property owners putting in a new system.

The grants also will pay for five years of professional maintenance, too.

There are about 421,000 septic systems in use in the state — one in five Marylanders uses a septic system, said John Boris, a project manager for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
In Anne Arundel County, there are more than 40,000 septic systems. Of that, 13,000 are in the “critical area” within 1,000 feet of the bay or its tributaries.

Septic systems work by sending wastewater from the house into a holding tank in the ground. There, solids settle to the bottom and scum rises to the top.

The remaining liquid, called effluent, flows out through perforated drainage pipes that are buried underground on beds of gravel. The liquid then gradually seeps out into the groundwater.

The systems work well at removing harmful bacteria, but they were never designed to get rid of nitrogen, Mr. Boris said.
Advanced systems add an extra step of introducing oxygen into the effluent.
That step — along with recirculating the effluent through the process again before going to the drainfield — removes much of the nitrogen.

The goal of advanced systems is to get at least a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen, or to get the level to 20 milligrams per liter or less.

Before putting in advanced systems, some homes are emitting effluent with 40, 60 or even 100 milligrams per liter of nitrogen.

Mr. Boris of MDE said adding the nitrogen-removing component is a relatively painless way to help the bay — homeowners don’t have to make any lifestyle changes or sacrifices. And with the flush fee grants, they may not have to pay hardly a dime, either.
“You don’t have to be the big, green environmentalist to do your part,” he said. “You can do this.”

Grant money

The flush fee money being collected by the state will come back to Anne Arundel County in a big way.

When the state asked counties to apply for their share, Anne Arundel put in the largest request: $2.64 million.

Queen Anne’s County was awarded $287,000.

That money will pay for the first round of septic installations over the next two years. And the money will continue to flow to this area in future years, as the flush fee is an ongoing tax.

“If we use up that money, we can always ask for more,” said Don Curtian, deputy director of environmental health for Anne Arundel County.

The county Department of Health oversees septic systems and will distribute the flush fee money.

“The Bay Restoration Fund is of particular value to Anne Arundel County,” said county Health Officer Frances B. Phillips. “We have more shoreline than anyone else. We have more septic systems on the shoreline that can contribute to the degradation or improvement of the bay.”

Though all septic users in the county are eligible to apply, the priority is to give grants to homeowners within 1,000 feet of the shore who have failing systems.

Those homeowners will score more points in the county’s ranking system for applicants, Mr. Curtian said.

County and state officials are starting an education campaign to raise awareness among septic owners. Letters will go out to community associations in areas with heavy septic use.

And when people seek approval for a new septic systems, health officials will try to steer them to nitrogen-reducing systems.
The $2.64 million for Anne Arundel should pay for approximately 128 systems at a cost of $17,000 each.

Interestingly, the money for septic systems wasn’t part of the original flush fee proposal from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Lawmakers insisted that septic users should pay into the fund and also get some benefits from it. The major part of the fund pays for upgrades to sewage treatment plants used by people on public sewer systems.

Mr. Ehrlich went along with the addition of septic systems rather than see his signature environmental initiative die.

Mr. Boris of MDE said it has taken awhile for septic users to realize that the flush fee can benefit them, too.

“People are now starting to understand,” he said. “At first people didn’t want to pay. Now it’s, ‘How do I get the money back?’”

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For information, visit www.aahealth.org or call 410-222-7193. The Maryland Department of the Environment has a Bay Restoration Fund hotline at 410-537-4195.

pwood@capitalgazette.com

(Revised Feb 2007)