Category Archives: Current Events

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”?

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

Hungary Sludge Flood

This wouldn’t be much of water resource blog if I failed to mention the catastrophe unfolding this week in Western Hungary.  This one has “top ten water resource disasters in history” written all over it.  Around noon on October 4, 184 million gallons of toxic aluminum production waste was released when a containment reservoir ruptured sending out a wave of sludge that flooded 15 square miles.  Five people were killed and over a hundred injured as they tried to escape the sludge, which at times was over 6 feet deep.  Anyone who came into contact with the substance was immediately burned by the red chemical mixture.  Check out these photos from

That red line was the height of the sludge flood

Continue reading Hungary Sludge Flood

Whose Dam is it Anyway?

Here’s a story I’ve been following for a while.  It’s interesting because of the legal dispute but also because it’s emblematic of the larger issue of abandoned and unmaintained private dams.  In this case, the dam in question is privately owned by Jerry and Georgia McGonigle of Hutchinson, Kansas.  It’s a small dam that collects runoff and protects about 42 area homes from flooding.  The problem is that the dam hasn’t been maintained over the past 30 years and now requires $1 million in repairs.  Unfortunately, the McGonigles knew none of this when the bought the dam, along with 20 acres of property and a house, for $300,000 back in 2008.  Now the city is telling them to fund the repairs, which they say will bankrupt them.  The McGonigles claim that the dam repairs should be the city’s responsibility because the dam protects downstream developments that the city approved.  They also claim they should not be held liable for 30 years of neglect because they’ve only owned the property for two.

The McGonigles’ argument hinges on a 1977 agreement made between the city and the prior owners of the property.  The agreement specified that the city was solely responsible for the engineering design and construction of improvements to the dam, but whoever owns the property is responsible for maintenance.  The dam was inspected by the city in 1993, 1997, and 1999 and all inspection reports criticized the dam for lack of maintenance.  When the McGonigles purchased the home they were neither informed of the condition of the dam nor of the agreement with the city making them responsible for maintaining it.  The question now is who is responsible for repairing the aging dam?  The current owners, the city, or the prior owners?

The McGonigles have filed a claim with their title insurance company for failing to inform them about the agreement during a routine title check performed when they bought the property.  In response, the title insurance company is suing the city, the McGonigles, and the prior owners claiming that, because the dam and lake are private, any agreements concerning their maintenance would not be reported in a title search and therefore would not be reported in a title search.

So, whose dam is this?  The McGonigles would like nothing more than for the city to take responsibility for repairing and maintaining the dam but the city seems to be insisting that it’s a private structure.  Obviously, there’s going to need to be a trial in order to sort all of this out and it’s a story I plan to keep watching.  Also, watching closely are 42 homeowners who have been informed that their homes would suffer damage if the dam were to rupture; some of whom were planning to sell their homes before this fiasco frightened away potential buyers.

20-acre parcel purchased by the McGonigles with Panorama Lake and Dam.
These subdivisions sit below the dam's spillway, which is split into two channels that empty on to two streets where excess water would flow into city storm drains.

Hutchinson homeowners surprised by $900,000 bill for dam” by Mary Clarkin
Title firm sues over dam costs” by Mary Clarkin

Strawberries Threaten to Destroy City

Winters in Plant City, Florida can be a scary time of year.  When the temperature drops below freezing, the strawberries in this self-proclaimed “winter strawberry capital of the world” get rowdy.  Roads begin to buckle, schools are closed, and homes are swallowed up by the earth.  The culprit?  Sinkholes.  Sinkholes caused by the 8,000 acres of strawberry fields surrounding the city.

Under normal circumstances, fields of strawberries are quite harmless.  The problems start when near-freezing temperatures threaten the crop and farmers turn on the sprinklers.   As the water freezes on the plants, it releases just enough energy to keep the plants themselves from freezing.  That’s the risk of growing strawberries in Florida in winter; if the temperature drops too low you could lose your entire crop.  Freezing that many strawberries, however, takes a lot of water — a lot more than you might think.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida says that each acre of berries needs 6,800 gallons an hour to coat crops in a protective layer of ice.  That means a 20-acre farm can use 3.2 million gallons — the equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools — in 24 hours.  It’s about the same amount of water used by the 32,000 residents of Plant City in a single day.  With 8,000 acres of strawberries to cover in a 110-square mile area around the city, that’s over one billion gallons of water per day. [Source]

This past January the city got 11 straight days of near-freezing temperatures.  Farmers ran sprinklers night and day with only occasional breaks.  Billions of gallons of water were sucked up from the Floridian aquifer beneath the town.  Pumping that much water out of the ground at once destabilizes the already sinkhole-prone Florida landscape.  Sinkholes began appearing overnight in seemingly random locations around town.

Continue reading Strawberries Threaten to Destroy City