Volume 13, Issue 34 ~ August 25 - 31, 2005
Letters to the Editor
Bay Reflections
Earth Talk
Dr. Gouin's Bay Gardener
Weekly Crab Forecast

Way Downstream

Bill Burton
Sky Watch
Earth Journal
8 Days a Week
Music Notes
Music Scene
Curtain Call
Movie Times
News of the Werid
Free Will Astrology
Classified Advertising
Display Advertising
Distribution Spots
Behind Bay Weekly
Contact Us
Submit Letters to Editor Online

Submit Your Events Online

Search bayweekly.com
Search Goggle

Setting Septics Straight
Calvert Countians’ septic systems compete for prizes
by Carrie Steele

Bright, daily life buzzes about on Earth’s surface. Underneath, systems of gurgling, writhing, flowing and churning waste descend through the bowels of septic and sewage systems. We prefer not to think about the necessary dark, putrid plumbing operating under the green lawns we mow, flowerbeds we tend to and houses where our families dwell. This underground maze of pipes and holding tanks is only remembered when smell and standing water reveal signs of trouble.

But trouble leaches and seeps from sewage all the time — in the form of oxygen-busting nitrogen released into our water systems.

That’s why Calvert County’s water quality champion, former state senator Bernie Fowler, paid $200 to the Brothers’ Johnson to have his 1,500-gallon septic system pumped August 22. Now he invites the county’s 26,500 septic-system households to do the same or better.

“This is just another action people can take, though small, in making a change to clean the Bay up. Anything that I can involve myself in to clean the water, I will,” said Fowler.

Anne Arundel County also relies moderately on septic systems to treat household wastewater; 48,000 households in that county have septic systems.

Fowler’s pumping represents growing awareness of the problem produced by our household mini-water-treatment plants. The state’s new flush tax on septic systems promises to help make septic upgrades cleaner and more attainable. Now, a new Calvert County study has brought the problem into focus.

photo courtesy of Atlantic Images, by Bob Gerardy
Retired state senator Bernie Fowler, second from right, watches with Dave Brownlee, Mike Johnson and Len Zuza as Brothers’ Johnson pumps out his spetic system.
One-quarter of the nitrogen pollution in Solomons harbor, the study found, comes from septic systems — fertilizing algae blooms of the sort that lead to dead zones. The Solomons Harbor Study — conducted by the Chesapeake Biological Lab and presented by the Solomons Harbor Work Group — scrutinized 10 square miles of southern Calvert County, where sewer systems serve almost one-fourth of the homes.

Old-time septic systems unleash nitrogen into groundwater systems even when they’re pumped on schedule and otherwise maintained. Nitrogen is not the only nutrient pollutant in the Bay, but it’s the culprit under current attack.

Nitrogen’s not bad in itself — 80 percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen — but mixed into the water it creates algal blooms that block sunlight and contribute to oxygen-eating mass on the Bay’s bottom. These are the notorious dead zones that plague Bay life. Zero oxygen in dead zones means that fish, crabs, oysters and aquatic plants can’t breathe.

What we’re left with are eerie patches of Bay where nothing can survive. Almost one-third of the Bay suffers from dead zones. Nitrogen’s main avenues for getting into the Bay are mostly from fertilizers from lawns (there’s little agriculture in the study area) and the atmosphere. Sewage is a close third in this puzzle of nitrogen infestation.

To fight this particular influx of nitrogen, Calvert’s new survey found that the two most effective methods are, first, pumping out septic tanks more frequently. Second, and much more expensive, is installing nitrogen-removing tanks that convert 50 to 80 percent of the nitrogen in septic systems to gas. This nitrogen gas then rises into the atmosphere instead of rushing into the groundwater, as it does in most older septic versions.

Knowing how pollution flows is a big step, but it’s not in itself likely to motivate most people to action. So Calvert County has come up with a carrot to lure residents to better septics. Pump or upgrade, and you could win $150 toward the cost of the pump-out or the new nitrogen-removing tank. Or a night’s stay at Solomons Holiday Inn, a sport fishing trip with Bunky’s Charters; a $100 gift certificate from West Marine; or dinners from area restaurants.

Follow in Bernie Fowler’s footsteps before October 7, and you’re in the running. Pump For the Bay winners will be picked in a drawing at the Environmental Commission booth during the Patuxent River Appreciation Days celebration on October 9.

Calvert residents can enter Pump For the Bay by sending name and address to the County Department of Planning and Zoning along with a copy of the receipt for the septic tank treatments: 410-535-1600 x2356.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.