Educate Waterfront Homeowners About Septic System Woes

Kentucky program works to identify and address a growing number of problem onsite systems before E. coli works its way downstream.
Educate Waterfront Homeowners About Septic System Woes
Contact Bridget Abernathy at Bluegrass Greensource in Lexington, Kentucky, at 859/266-1572 or

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The Dix River zigzags through central Kentucky for miles until it empties into the Kentucky River about 20 miles southwest of Lexington. But scientists found that the Dix was carrying more than just water. There was contamination, too, and that led Bluegrass Greensource, a nonprofit organization located in Lexington, to team up with local wastewater professionals to help solve the problem.

Pumper caught up with Bridget Abernathy, an outreach specialist for Bluegrass Greensource, to learn about the problem and the program.

Pumper: What does Bluegrass Greensource do?

Abernathy: We started in 2001 under a different name, but our focus has always been to serve as a resource and provide education. We work in schools and we work with adults to teach them about conservation and sustainability. For example, we work with businesses on recycling plans. They may have a program in place to recycle office paper, but when it comes to cardboard or other items, that may not happen throughout a plant because it’s a big job. We help with waste audits, assessment of needs and staff training. We also work with businesses to assess their energy use and suggest ways to reduce it.

Pumper: Could you describe the Dix watershed and its problems?

Abernathy: It’s a medium-sized river that flows into the Kentucky River and thus into the Ohio River. There’s also a lot of water recreation that happens on it. Water recreation — swimming, boating, fishing — is very big in Kentucky, generally. Scientists from the University of Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute have been studying the Dix for years.

They found very high E. coli levels in the Dix tributaries, and by high I mean 10 to 1,000 times the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) limits. Of 234 miles of stream they looked at, 104 were unsafe for wading and swimming.

Because we have a lot of cattle farming around the Dix, they also looked at the genetics of the microorganisms to learn where the E. coli came from. Human waste was the largest contributor.

Pumper: What septic problems did they find?

Abernathy: There was a survey along Hanging Fork Creek, one tributary of the Dix. Researchers looked at 2,700 properties with septic systems and found 37 percent were failing. It’s safe to assume the problem is similar in the rest of the state. For decades we’ve had a problem with straight-pipes, which is a pipe that takes waste from a home directly to a stream or to a ditch that runs into a stream. This was once very common in Appalachia where they have little ability to use traditional septic systems because of the topography or geology, and it’s more common in areas of high poverty.

Pumper: How did the septic program start?

Abernathy: After the research was done, watershed protection groups began developing plans to address the problems. Starting in 2012, we worked with the Water Resources Research Institute to apply for a grant under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. It’s federal money that comes from the EPA and is administered by the state.

The focus for our grant is reducing human pathogen sources in three counties, Boyle, Garrard and Lincoln. Our program is about more than septic systems. It’s about water quality generally, and that means all pollutants. So in addition to the septic program, we have one educator who works in schools to educate children about stormwater runoff, water quality and ways to reduce pollution.

Pumper: What do people in the septic program receive?

Abernathy: Our grants will pay for up to 80 percent of the cost to repair or replace a system and a free pumpout. Sometimes that means another septic tank. Some people opt for advanced treatment units, but not through our program. To be eligible for a grant, homeowners must attend one of our workshops, and we hold those every three to four months.

Pumper: How much interest have you attracted?

Abernathy: We don’t have a large number of people at each workshop, but we do have steady attendance, typically 10 to 15 per session. We publicize workshops through the local paper, on radio, social media, through the University Extension Service, through local health departments and other partners. Typically people come because they think they have a problem, and we find that if people live within the watershed they usually do and are eligible for assistance.

Pumper: How much knowledge do property owners have?

Abernathy: We’ve found pretty limited knowledge of anything related to water quality, and probably minimal or moderate knowledge about septic systems. What we do hear all the time are comments from people who say they’ve lived at a place for 30 years and everything works fine, and they don’t understand why they need to pump.

Pumper: How are wastewater professionals involved?

Abernathy: Through the Kentucky Onsite Wastewater Association, local health department professionals talk about septic systems and how they work, how important they are, how soil acts as a filter and purifier, and about the grant program and how it works. They also cover system care, and they help us tell people about the workshops. Local certified septic contractors have also attended our workshops, helped spread the word about the program and assisted with septic repairs.

Pumper: How much does the grant cover?

Abernathy: On average, the people we help receive $5,000 for repairs. Pumpouts are $350, and that includes excavation and riser installation.

Pumper: What is your total grant amount?

Abernathy: The total we have to work with is $622,000. Of that, $371,000 comes from the EPA and the remaining $250,000 is matching money from the state and other sources. People can apply for grants every year, and a grant lasts for three years. So far we have 16 repairs completed with another 15 under contract, and we have 13 finished pumpouts with another 16 under contract. And in our very rural area we have eight to 10 different contractors working with us.

Pumper: When does the grant end?

Abernathy: Our funding runs through the end of 2016, but when you think about the fact that 37 percent of systems along one stream are failing, I think this is a program that needs to run for many more years. There won’t be a measurable effect on water quality during just the few years of our present grant. We’re planning to apply for additional funding during the next round of grant applications and hope to be successful because of our well-established relationships with local professionals.

Ideally, this program would exist across a larger portion of our 20-county service area, but the EPA tends to focus its money on places with strong watershed-protection plans. The three counties we’re in now had those.


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