Meredith officials concerned about old septic systems near Lake Waukewan
The Waukewan Watershed Advisory Committee, which was honored with the Department of Environmental Services' first Water Source Protection Award, in 2005, has been working on ways to decrease the amount of damaging phosphorus in the lake.
The DES has classified Waukewan as being 'impaired' because of its high phosphorus levels, but it is still a Class A lake, and its water is still meeting the state's drinking water standards, said Paul Susca of the DES Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau.
'The phosphorus is high, but it's not an immediate concern in terms of the quality of the drinking water,' Susca said.
But the watershed committee performed an analysis of 112 septic systems within 250 feet of the water on the lake's Meredith shoreline and found 31 of them at 'very high risk' of failure by state standards, said Randy Eifert, chairman of the committee.
Most of the systems analyzed have no permits on file because they were installed before 1965, when the state began regulating septic systems, Eifert said.
'We don't know what some of these septic systems really are — more than likely they have no leach field — but we don't even know if they are real septic systems,' he said.
Phosphorus causes excessive algae growth and decreases water clarity, often turning lakes green. Decaying algae also depletes oxygen in the water, so fish fail to thrive. In some cases, it can cause toxic algae blooms; there were two such blooms in Lake Waukewan within two weeks at the end of 2006.
The 2009 testing of the lake indicated a total phosphorous level of 8.9 parts per billion. That is within state limits, 'but we are seeing an upward trend in phosphorus, and it's easier to prevent these problems than it is to correct them,' Eifert said. Other measurements of the lake's bottom recently have shown levels of close to 10 parts per billion, which indicates a trend toward increasing phosphorus levels.
There are many factors that contribute to high phosphorus levels, including erosion, sedimentation and storm water runoff into the lake from fertilized lawns and gardens.
Town officials, noting that failing septic systems may make up less than 20 percent of the total phosphorus in the lake, are considering a proposal from the committee to change the town rules pertaining to Waukewan. The change would require at-risk septic systems to be evaluated.
If a system failed inspection, the homeowner would be required to replace it. If it passed, the system would have to be re-evaluated every five years.
Under the rule change, enlarging a home or constructing a new building on the lake would necessitate inspections and might require the replacement of older or inadequate septic systems, town officials said.
Under current state rules, new septic systems are only required if an old system fails.
The rule change, which has been confused by some as a new ordinance, would require only the approval of the selectmen. A new ordinance would require a town vote.
The committee asked the 31 lake residents with high-risk septic systems to take a survey last year, but only three responded, two against the rule change and one in favor. In a second survey of the owners with systems not at high risk, 14 were in favor of the change, five were against and four were undecided, Eifert said.
In discussing the rule change Sept. 17, selectmen questioned its fairness because it would apply only to Lake Waukewan, not to other landowners on other lakes in the town and in the region who may have failing septic systems.
Selectmen have also voiced concern that the rule change could produce financial hardships for many of the homeowners, but state and federal government sources have been identified that may provide grants or loans to those who need them, Eifert said.
Selectmen have voiced support for the rule change, saying it could be a model for changes on other lakes in town.
State officials said there are other lakes in the state with the same problems Waukewan is dealing with. The officials praised the Waukewan committee and the town for the way they've handled the situation.
'They are ahead of the game; this could be a model for other lakes and lake associations statewide,' Susca said.
The selectmen have agreed to hold a hearing on the issue before making a decision. The hearing date has not been set, but it likely will be in November or December, town officials said.
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Dan Seufert may be reached at email@example.com.