The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank was Erma Bombeck’s first book, published in 1976. I don’t remember reading it, but it must have been successful, because she published another book two years later called If Life Is A Bowl Of Cherries, What Am I Doing In The Pits? Erma was a funny lady.
I was talking to Fred Von Staden, the Environmental Health Officer for Cecil County, the other day and he asked if I thought the SassafrasRiver Association would like to have some water quality sampling records from the 1960’s up to about the turn of the century. Now, I do realize that the average person wouldn’t think twice before refusing an offer like that, but I am the Riverkeeper, you know. We Riverkeepers are all about water quality sampling and trying to improve the water quality in our rivers.
Fred is aware of that, or he wouldn’t have made the offer. So I responded the way he thought I would, and was in his office as soon as I could get there. We sat down and he produced a manila folder with some faded papers which, sure enough, were fecal coliform sampling and other health department records of the Sassafras River from as much as a half century ago.
I am not going to slow down this story with a bunch of numbers, but the bacteria counts were so high I asked if the same protocols and operating procedures were used to collect them as we use today. Fred assured me the methods of collection and counting were the same. I asked how could that be, and he explained about how “humanure” (my word, not Fred’s) disposal facilities have changed over the years.
When I was a lad in the mid nineteen-fifties, my family bought a house with a septic tank. I asked my Dad why part of the lawn was greener than the rest, and what do you know…he said the grass was greener over the septic tank. Looking back, I now know the green grass was an indication that our septic tank was not very efficient, and nutrients were being released and making their way to the surface. I don’t know if we even had a septic drain field. But, hey, we had a septic tank! And that was the best available technology at the time.
Over half the homes in the sixties in Cecil County had what Fred called a toilet-and-pit facility, or as I’ve heard them called, “out houses”. Picture in your mind an unheated “porta-potty”, in your back yard, with un-insulated wooden walls and roof, and a deep hole in the ground underneath. As the name suggests, they were not in the living quarters, and were memorably uncomfortable from about October through March - even longer the further north one ventured.
Nowadays, modern septic systems have been improved with the addition of nitrogen removal filters, and are again called ‘Best Available Technology” (BAT). Most towns now have a central waste water treatment plant which not only provides primary treatment (settling lagoons), but also secondary treatment to remove most of the nutrients prior to releasing the effluent back into the environment. In the Sassafras watershed, Galena and Betterton are making headway toward an “enhanced nutrient removal” system which will greatly reduce the amount of algae-causing nutrients from our waterways.
Looking at the records Fred provided, the bacteria levels were unbelievably high in the Sassafras River in the 1970’s. As I said before, I won’t bore you with details - but the numbers are staggering.
The records also show that over 50% of the homes along the rivers in Cecil County were discharging sewage directly into the waterways with no treatment. Cecil was surely no worse than other counties around the Bay, so the amount of fecal coliform bacteria in our rivers and Bay were hundreds of times higher than today. We have made great strides from removing this source of bacteria and the accompanying nutrients from our waters.
When the Betterton and Galena WWTP’s have been completed, and with more and more conversions to a BAT septic system, combined with the reduced input from farms and boats, the Sassafras River is seeing positive steps toward those future warm summer days when we rarely see algae blooms and the healthy underwater vegetation is again flourishing.
And no one will even think of the days when the grass was always greener over the septic tank.
I’ll see you on the river,
Captain Emmett Duke