Septic education task force pumped up by grant

Group collecting data, distributing brochures

to protect waterways

The Septic System Education Task Force of the Westport Wastewater Management Committee learned last week that the town has secured a $6,000 grant to promote voluntary compliance with best practices in septic-system management for the purpose of reducing groundwater contamination.

The task force competed successfully for the grant award in an application to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, under the Long Island Sound Futures Fund (LISFF), which was established in 2005 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restore the aquatic habitat and environmental health of the Long Island Sound.

The Westport award was one of 12 LISFF small-grants this year of up to no more than $10,000 each -- for a total of $68,123. There were 21 large LISFF grants, amounting to a total of $943,755.

The wastewater management committee was appointed in March of 2008 by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to explore a voluntary approach to solving the problem of septic pollution, before resorting to a septic-system management ordinance, as proposed for the approximately 6,000 septic systems in town by the 2007 Town Plan of Conservation and Development.

Jonathan Steinberg, who has been acting chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), and Diane Cady, who has been chairing the RTM Environment Committee, serve as co-chairmen of the task force.

Conservation Department Director Alicia Mozian and Steinberg prepared the Westport proposal for the latest LISFF grant. In 2006 and 2007, Mozian's department received LISFF grants for Sherwood Mill Pond restoration.

At a meeting of the wastewater committee Monday, Steinberg described the voluntary approach as the "better way to proceed" with implementing the septic goal of getting septic pollution under control. "We are hopeful that an ordinance will not be necessary," he said.

The grant proposal identified the combination of "thoughtless dumping of non-degradable substances down drains" and "infrequent system pumping and lax overall management" as likely contributors to excessively high levels of "nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, toxic chemicals and pharmaceuticals" in the town's groundwater.

The contaminated groundwater, the proposal stated, flows into the Saugatuck River and other waterways, such as Muddy Brook, and ultimately reaches the Long Island Sound.

An educational initiative

To make the case for better septic-system management, the task force plans to use the grant money over the next 15 months to prepare and distribute educational brochures, place public service announcements on radio and television, send articles and letters to local newspapers and create a speakers bureau for presentations at community organizations.

To get a sense of how homeowners are currently managing their septic systems, the wastewater committee and its task force have engaged adult and student volunteers to conduct surveys of homes with septic systems in the downtown aquifer area. Protecting the quality of water for domestic consumption in the aquifer and in wells on properties with septic systems is a major goal of the wastewater committee's septic-system initiative.

Public Works Director Stephen Edwards and Westport/Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper, who are members of the committee, have been assembling data on the frequency of septic pump-outs to establish a baseline that will be used to judge the effectiveness of the education program.

"The goal is to get more people pumping," Edwards said at the wastewater committee meeting. At the same time, he acknowledged that repeated cleaning within a short period of time is an indicator of a failing septic system.

In September of last year, the health district adopted a new sanitary code governing additions and renovations of residential properties with septic systems, which Cooper discussed at the meeting.

"Anything that might reduce the amount of land area for a septic reserve or increase the amount of habitable space in a house would require an inspection of the existing septic system," Cooper said.