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12-04-03: From waste to wildlife

Some county residents try new concept that pairs conventional septic with wetlands

Homeowners with private septic systems now have another option to treat their waste, which also can preserve wildlife in their own backyard.
Mercer County health department and soil and water conservation officials have partnered to help homeowners install free water surface constructed wetlands systems, a new concept in treating home wastewater.
The new wetland system treats waste by incorporating a 2 to 3-foot-deep wetland on the homeowner’s land, where the wastewater is discharged and then filtered by aquatic plants growing in and around the wetland. The wetland would replace a subsurface sand filter or leach bed, which treats home sewage and then discharges treated water into a tile, stream or creek.
Maria Stein area resident John Zahn is one of four Mercer County residents who have installed the new septic wetland system. Zahn’s system was completed last week.
Zahn said he did it for the environmental benefit and for the money it saved him because he was able to get federal funds to help pay to construct the wetland.
Last summer Zahn learned his aging septic system was failing and needed replaced. Building the wetland meant he did not need an underground sand filter or leach bed.
He had two wetlands, the first a 1.2-acre area that his septic system drains into and a second much smaller one, dug on the nine acres he owns in Marion Township. Federal funds paid for 90 percent of the cost to build both wetlands.
“The whole septic system would have cost me between $5,000 and $8,000 to replace,” Zahn said. “With the way we did it, it should come in around $2,000.”
In all four systems in the county, the landowners had wanted to build wetlands anyway to create wildlife habitat. In three of the cases, the homeowners also needed to replace or upgrade failing septic systems and decided the new wetland septic system met both needs.
“Most of these people came to us about putting in wetlands first for wildlife habitat then found out they could do the septic too. The septic is the bonus,” said Matt Heckler, a technician with the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District.
The new septic wetland system consists of a pipe that leads from the home to a septic tank, an effluent filter that keeps solids in the tank and another pipe that discharges wastewater from the tank into the wetland. Aquatic plants such as cattails and grasses growing around the wetland filter out nutrients from the liquid waste that drains into the wetland. Biological processes that naturally occur in wetlands also treat the wastewater, explained Michelle Kimmel, county environmental health director.
A conventional septic system in Mercer County consists of a pipe that leads from the home to a septic tank, where solids drop to the bottom. A transfer pipe takes the wastewater to a secondary treatment area such as an underground sand filter bed or leach bed, and an outlet pipe then discharges treated water into a tile, stream or creek. The idea is that by the time the water reaches the tile, stream or creek, it is greatly reduced in fecal bacteria numbers and suspended solids, Kimmel said.
Health department officials were wary of the wetland septic system when it was first proposed four years ago by Fort Recovery area resident Bill Knapke, who wanted to build one for his home on Watkins Road.
“At first we didn’t know much about them, but we did some research and talked to the soil and water office for guidance,” Kimmel said. “It took us about two months to decide to let Bill try it.”
Kimmel said she made it clear to Knapke that if water samples taken from the wetland were unfavorable, he may still have to install a conventional sand filter bed. All such septic wetland systems require approval from the Mercer County Health Department, and a minimum of a half acre is needed to build the wetland.
The new wetland septic system also may help reduce water pollution in county streams and rivers, a documented problem in Mercer County, according to water quality tests done in 1999.
So far, water test results from three of the four systems in the county have produced readings that exceeded acceptable ranges, Kimmel said. In fact, the water quality levels exceeded the EPA-regulated discharge requirements for the sanitary lagoons that treat wastewater at the Montezuma Club Island Wastewater Treatment Plant south of the village of Montezuma. No water samples have been taken from the fourth system because it was just constructed last week.
“This is something new for people who have the land to do it and the desire to try it,” Kimmel said.
Heckler, who installed a septic wetlands system in 2002, said he cleans the effluent filter in the septic tank two times a year. Heckler’s wetland is roughly a third of an acre.
The filter is accessed by lifting off the riser lid that sits at ground level and then the septic tank lid. The 10-minute cleaning consists of spraying the filter off with a garden hose.
Knapke said he first learned of the concept at a conference five years ago. His wetland is a half acre and treats a household of four people. Knapke said it took a bit of convincing to get his wife to agree to it.
“She just didn’t know how it was gonna be,” Knapke said, adding that he has experienced no odor from the system. “You wouldn’t know it had a septic in it if I didn’t tell you.”
Installing septic wetland systems also is a way to save some money in most cases, especially if landowners qualify for funds from the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The federal program provides cost share money to build wetlands. In three of the four septic wetland systems built in the county, the federal funds paid for 90 percent of the cost of building each wetland. The funds do not pay for any parts of the septic system such as the tank, effluent filter and pipes.
Kimmel said the new system is just another option for people living in the country with private septic systems.
“I think wetlands are pretty, but not everyone is going to like this,” she said. “It takes a person who’s interested in a natural look and wildlife.”
For more information, contact the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District office in Celina at 419-586-3289 or the Mercer County Health Department at 419-596-3251. Information also is available on the Internet at http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/construc/freewatr.html.


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