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Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Failing septic systems scrutinized

Officials seek improvement of residential systems

By Nancy Allen
ST. HENRY - Local officials are finding more and more failing residential septic systems as they look into agriculture pollution complaints in waterways.
"It's becoming more evident, more obvious it's residential in some cases," Theresa Dirksen, an engineer with the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District told Grand Lake/Wabash Watershed Alliance members during a meeting Tuesday. "The EPA has told us any discharge coming out of a tile over 1 part per million in ammonia is not acceptable, and we've tested some residential septic discharge at 3 parts per million."
High levels of ammonia can harm aquatic life. Anything over 13 ppm is considered chronic toxicity to aquatic life, she said.
Milt Miller, director of the local Lake Restoration Commission, agreed septic systems need better oversight.
"Fair is fair," he said. "Failing residential septics should be held as accountable as farmers."
Farmers in recent years have been under the spotlight due to blue-green algae problems in Grand Lake. Nutrient runoff, mostly from farmland, has been feeding the algae, which produced toxins the last few summers. Water quality advisories were placed on the lake, resulting in decreased tourism and lost revenue for lake businesses.
Watershed coordinator Laura Walker and Miller said they would push the issue with the Mercer County Health Board, which oversees residential septic systems.
The watershed board on Tuesday reviewed and updated its watershed action plan, which is a roadmap on how to improve water quality in the 193,000-acre watershed in Mercer, Darke and Auglaize counties. One of the 15 objectives in the plan involves replacing failed or compromised private septic systems.
The watershed plan was first endorsed by the state in 2008, and the state requires the plan be updated annually to keep its grant funds. Grants pay for Walker's salary and make the alliance eligible to apply for conservation funds designed to improve water quality.
The plan is driven by stakeholders, anyone who owns land, lives, recreates, works or farms in the watershed, Walker said. Public stakeholder participation is required when updating the plan.
Four members of the public and the three-member alliance joint board (one member from each SWCD board in Mercer, Auglaize and Darke counties) attended Tuesday's meeting.
The advisory board during its two-hour meeting at the St. Henry Fire Department agreed to keep the following 12 objectives in the plan the same:
• Establish winter cover crops on 10,000 acres within the watershed within three years and maintain utilization of cover crops on each farm.
• Establish conservation tillage on 5,000 acres of cropland  throughout the watershed within five years.
• Identify dairy operations that currently directly discharge milkhouse wastewater into streams in the watershed and have them install a storage or treatment facility within the next five years.
• Install 100 tile control structures to monitor water leaving tiles, particularly during manure application. The structures will be used in combination with tile plugs.
• Encourage the use of best management practices for manure management by using manure on fields that receive commercial fertilizer and incorporate manure management and/or treatment technologies on at least two livestock farms within the watershed and demonstrate the effectiveness of the practice to the public. Walker said she would review technologies being looked at by Ag Solutions, a nonprofit, farmer-led group trying to develop cost-effective solutions to lessen runoff.
• Establish 620 acres of filter strips or tree-lined butters within the watershed within five years.
• Establish 500 acres of filter areas around tile inlets, receivers, road ditches and other sensitive areas in the watershed within five years.
• Stabilize 2,000 linear feet of stream bank that is prone to erosion using natural stream design techniques within five years.
• Ensure that proper sediment and erosion controls are being utilized on construction sites throughout the watershed.
• Reduce the over-application of phosphorous and nitrogen on 350 lawns and gardens by assisting with residential lawn and garden soil testing to evaluate soil needs prior to applying fertilizers
• Replace 110 failed or compromised private septic systems within the watershed. Systems will be tied into centralized sewer systems or upgraded to on-lot, no discharge systems.
• Discontinue the use of home sewage (septic) treatment systems in concentrated residential areas by connecting the areas to centralized sewer systems.
The advisory board agreed to make changes to the following four objectives:
• Increase the number of acres in the watershed covered by nutrient management plans from 48 to 53 percent. The plans tell best how to apply manure and fertilizers so as not to cause pollution.
• Stabilize 11,330 additional linear feet of shoreline along Grand Lake that is prone to erosion, prioritizing areas directly adjacent to naturally occurring wetlands within five years. This will be in addition to the goal of 20,000 linear feet currently in the plan.
• Increase the number of restored or constructed wetlands from 60 to 200 in the watershed within five years. Much of this will be accomplished through a treatment train project at Prairie Creek housing subdivision that will add 63 acres of constructed wetlands and a planned 90-acre in-lake wetland area located off the lakeshore in the same area.
The watershed joint board will meet to reorganize at a date yet to be determined in January.
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