A crash course in septic systems and how they’re damaging the environment

Septic System

In his State of the State Address on February 3, 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley made the following statement:

“We must realize that where we choose to sleep, eat, and live affects our environment and it affects our Bay. Together, we’ve made some great progress in recent years. And we shouldn’t take that lightly. It didn’t happen by chance, it happened by choice … reducing farm run-off, reducing pollution from aging sewage treatment plants; most recently, starting to reduce the damage and the pollution that’s caused by storm-water run-off. But among the big four causes of pollution in the Bay, there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it’s actually gotten much worse, and that is pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our State – systems which by their very design are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our Bay and into our water tables.

Now look, you and I can turn around this damaging trend by banning the further installation of septic systems in major new Maryland housing developments. This is common sense, this is urgently needed, this is timely, and for the health of the Bay we need to do what several rural counties have already done and had the good sense to do.  We are up to this” (source).

Reactions to this statement have been mixed and confused.  If you’re not familiar with septic systems, the Governor has just informed you that they are designed to leak sewage.  How can this be true?  Who would design such a system?  If you’re one of the 420,000 Maryland households using a septic system you probably feel singled out.  You no doubt wonder how your perfectly functioning septic tank could be contributing to the death of the Chesapeake Bay (source).

In response to this confusion, I decided to do some digging and learn more about how septic tanks function, malfunction, and ultimately impact our waterbodies.  Hopefully this will shed some light on the issue and promote a better understanding of septic system developments. Continue reading A crash course in septic systems and how they’re damaging the environment

Will we ever finally “Save the Bay”?

Chesapeake Bay viewed from Hart-Miller Island
Chesapeake Bay viewed from Hart-Miller Island

The Chesapeake Bay is an amazing and beautiful place.  The Bay covers an area of 4,479 square miles making it the largest estuary in the United States.  It drains over 64,000 square miles with a watershed that stretches from Virginia to New York including 6 states and the District of Columbia.  An estuary is a body of water where fresh and salt water mix creating a unique ecosystem.  The Chesapeake Bay supports more than 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals and is home to 29 species of waterfowl.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Bay is also surprisingly shallow.  The average depth is 21 feet, but 25% of the Bay is less than 6 feet deep.  The size of the Bay’s watershed combined with its shallow waters make it particularly susceptible to pollution.  For decades environmentalists have chanted “save the bay!” but the policies implemented by state governments have had mixed results at best.  In 2009 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the health of the Bay as a “D” for the 10th year in a row (source).

So why is the Bay so hard to clean up?  Continue reading Will we ever finally “Save the Bay”?

Ten Largest Endorheic (Salty) Lakes of the World

I am always surprised when some piece of information I’m looking for is actually not on the Internet.  Such was the case this afternoon when I searched for a list of the largest endorheic waterbodies in the world.  An endorheic waterbody is a terminal lake (sometimes called a sea) that has no outlet other than evaporation.  In other words, rivers and streams flow in but nothing flows out.  Since the only way water escapes is via evaporation everything else – salt, nutrients, pollution – are continuously concentrated in the remaining water.  Some, like the Dead Sea, are so salty they cannot support life, but others support very unique ecosystems.

I’ve become interested in endorheic lakes because they are a microcosm for a number of water-related issues and act as a catchall for the pollution we put into our waterways.  Take, for example, Devils Lake in North Dakota.  Having no outlet means that the level of the lake can increase dramatically over a short period of time.  Since 1995, water levels have gone up nearly 25 feet destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and inundating thousands of acres of productive farmland.  State government constructed an outlet to release water into a nearby river but faced stern opposition from other states and Canada, who don’t want pollution and parasites from Devils Lake transferred into their waters.  As you can see, it can become quite the predicament.  Just wait until I get around to blogging about the Salton Sea!

Anyway, I was searching the Internet for a list of the largest endorheic lakes and I just couldn’t find one.  Sure, Wikipedia has a list of the largest lakes in the world, but this only includes a handful of endorheic lakes.  Wikipedia also has a page on endorheic basins, which mentions a lot of lakes but not in any structured way.  It also intermingles them with drainage basins, which may capture water without outlet but are clearly not lakes.  So, Internet, you’re welcome, because today I have constructed for you a list of the Top Ten Endorheic Lakes of the World (by surface area). Continue reading Ten Largest Endorheic (Salty) Lakes of the World

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Dead tree in the Blackwater wetlands

This winter I had an opportunity to visit the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  The Blackwater watershed contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands, however, sea level rise, erosion, subsidence, salt water intrusion, polluted runoff, and invasive species have resulted in the loss of over 8,000 acres of marsh (at a rate of 150 acres per year).  The marshes are a great place for viewing wildlife, especially bald eagles, and are used by over 50,000 migratory birds as a stopover during fall migration.

I have to admit that when I visited and looked out at the open water I thought I was looking out on to the Chesapeake Bay.  Only after coming home and looking at a map did I realize how far removed the wetlands are from the bay. Continue reading Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Dam Removal and Waterfront Property on the Boardman River – Traverse City, MI

Removal of the Brown Bridge Dam could begin as soon as Spring 2011.

As part of my recently completed graduate degree in Urban Planning I undertook an independent project that looked at the effects of dam removal on property values in Traverse City, MI.  Basically, the city has proposed the removal of four dams along a 17-mile stretch of the Boardman River.  However, at least 27 owners of waterfront property along one of the impoundments are vehemently opposed to the plan.

Property owners claim, logically, that removal of the dams (and the subsequent loss of their waterfront property) will result in a massive decline in the value of their land.  In response, Traverse City put out a study that claimed property values along the river would not fall due to dam removal, in fact, they could rise by as much as 1% a year over twenty years (that’s in addition to otherwise expected increases in property values).

Like the residents of Traverse City, I had trouble reconciling these two viewpoints and went on a mission to understand the city’s rationale.  I read all the publicly available documents, e-mailed officials and residents, and read the reports that the reports were based on (and sometimes the reports those were based on as well!).  What I found was that the city’s logic for predicting a net gain in property values was at the very least poorly explained and at the worst grossly misguided.

As an Urban Planner, it pains me when public planning processes are not seen as fair and transparent.  I support the goals of restoring natural river flows and ecosystems, but if cities cannot be honest with their residents, they will increasingly face sterner opposition from property owners effected by the dam removal process.

Continue reading Dam Removal and Waterfront Property on the Boardman River – Traverse City, MI

The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time

Over the Holidays I had the opportunity to read a great book recommended to me by a professor of urban planning economics.  Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a fascinating look at one of the country’s greatest environmental disasters.  The dust storms that ravaged the high plains throughout the 1930’s brought death and destructions to thousands of Americans who moved to the area over the previous 50 years to take advantage of cheap land and soaring wheat prices.

You may have heard of the American dust storms before but Egan’s tale brings these storms to light in new and horrifying ways.  Dust storms would black out the sun for days on end as people huddled in shelters.  At times the air was so full of dust that candles could not get enough air to stay lit.  Children walking home from school were literally suffocated to death by clouds of dust.  Men could not shake hands because static electricity built up in the clouds of dust to the point where touching another person could knock them off their feet and barbed wire fences hummed with an electric blue glow as storms approached.  Thousands died of dust pneumonia as the silica-laden dust particles scarred their lungs until they could not longer function.  This really was the worst hard time. Continue reading The Ogallala Aquifer and the Worst Hard Time

Official blog of Adam Lindquist, urban planner, watershed steward, and Blue Urbanist in Baltimore, MD.