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ERIE COUNTY, OH – Water Quality Series Part 4 | Combined Sewer Overflow | County Commissioners | Erie Soil & Water

April 19, 2010

For this fourth installment in her series on water, Cassandra Lagunzad contacts local government officials and agencies about water related issues in the area.  In Part Three, Cassandra interviewed Dr. David Baker of Heidelberg College’s Water Quality Lab.  Baker explained that although the two major issues in relation to water are quality and quantity, ‘water quality’ is the most relevant to Northern Ohio. In particular, he mentioned Phosphorus over-enrichment.

In order to find more information about Erie County’s solutions for Phosphorus over-enrichment, phone calls were made to several local officials but only three answered questions: Thomas Ferrell, Jr., Bill Monaghan, and Breann Hohmann.

Thomas Ferrell, Jr. and Bill Monaghan, two out of the three Erie County Commissioners respond similarly. Both immediately state a lack of extensive knowledge on the subject of Water Quality and Phosphorus over-enrichment. They suggest to contact Erie Soil & Water Conservation District.  When asking Ferrell if he knows of any other local water-related problems, he mentions algal blooms and agricultural runoff, before once again suggesting she speaks to Soil & Water for more information.  Algal blooms, however, are a symptom of Phosphorus over-enrichment. To the same inquiry Monaghan replies, “[I] really can’t help you on that.” He explains that he had retired from the aluminum business, an industry seemingly unrelated to Water Quality.

Upon contacting Breann Hohman, Watershed Coordinator from Erie Soil & Water, she mentions several causes for Phosphorus enrichment. Hohmann, like Baker, mentions that Non-point Source Pollution (NPS) is the largest contributor in this area, often from agricultural runoff.  She specifies that there is a rise in soluble reactive Phosphorus, previously known as Dissolved Phosphorus.

“Failing septic systems and combined sewage overflows are also contributors” says Hohmann. Combined sewer overflows occur during periods of heavy rain. Most communities employ a Combined Sewer System, in which either a single pipe or two pipes close together are used to transport both raw sewage and rainwater to a wastewater treatment plant when the levels are low.  However, according to Hohman, “When there is a big storm or it rains a long time and the sewer fills up, there are overflow discharge areas, often a dam or a pipe.” These areas are often designated by signs marked either “Sewage Overflow” or “Combined Sewer Overflow” with advisory signs in place when active.

Combine Sewer Overflow sign located next to the Sandusky Bay Pavilion and Damon's Restaurant. photo: Cassandra Lagunzad

Hohman states that septic systems can fail under certain conditions: larger load than normal, supersaturation, improper installation, and homeowners neglecting general maintenance. She also mentions that in the cases of failing septic systems you need regulatory action to ensure its replacement, and this costs serious money. Currently, Sandusky is spending millions to increase its carrying capacity at the wastewater treatment plant. Skeptics see this as a snowball effect, and worry that an increase in population growth or annual precipitation would only ask for a further capacity increase resulting in more taxpayer dollars. Rather, their solution is to eliminate curbs and line city streets with bioswales, i.e. depressed vegetated strips planted with water hungry plants. Swales have been known to hold and manage large deposits of stromwater runoff.

Map showcasing CSO locations and their permits within Sandusky. This map reveals 15 CSO permits.

In regards to combined sewer overflows, the EPA has the National Pollutant Elimination System (NPES) program in place. Currently, in larger communities there is a shift from Phase I, which was put in to place in 1990 under the Clean Water Act, to Phase II with the intention of further mitigating the environmental impact of wastewater. According to Hohman, cities with a Phase II program have a large list of ways to help reduce NPS: better management, better site design, and not building too close to streams and wetlands.

When asked what measures Erie County was setting forth to counter Phosphorus over-enrichment in Lake Erie, she says, “Not much.”

Hohman points out that the measures being taken in Erie County are voluntary programs to reduce Phosphorus from fields, and also mentions Farm Bill Programs. However, Erie Soil & Water does not have the legal authority to approve people for the Farm Bill. What they are able to do is inform the public and speak to farmers about various issues, including resource concerns. Often, farmers will come to them for advice about keeping soil on their land, and they will provide suggestions on how to do so. However, one major setback with managing Non-point Source Pollution, according to Hohman is “You can’t point to a single person, only a land use.”

Hohman says there have been major improvements to water, but there are still issues.

Among those issues is the loss of wetlands, but a variety of solutions are being explored.  Converting unused farm fields back to wetlands and stream restoration are among these solutions.

Also, she poses that Phosphorus is not the only contributor to increases in algal blooms, that sediment as well as Phosphorus is to blame, although they are intertwined. She goes on to say that cloudy water promotes the growth of Microcystis, a type of blue-green algae. This type of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria can be toxic and the increase of algal blooms greatly impacts Lake Erie’s ecology. For more information, she suggests to read the Summer/Fall Issue of Twine Line (see below).

View this document on Scribd

Microcystis. A blue-green algae causing algal blooms. photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Panek

Hohman says that she and the rest of the staff at Erie Soil & Water are dependent on volunteers. Their contributions are of great help to Erie County, as well as the ecology of Lake Erie as a whole.

The importance of water to our society and to the environment cannot be denied. This month’s issue of National Geographic, dedicated entirely to water, depicts the need worldwide and how it affects politics, nature and our way of life.

For more on water, check out our Water Quality Series.

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