League of Women Voters dives into water concerns

The League of Women Voters has tried to make sure people know there’s nothing fishy happening in local waters with a four-part informational water program which concluded last week at Greenwich Point.

The fourth installment of the series, which took place last Thursday, featured a panel of local water quality experts who gave lectures regarding wastewater, septic systems and other related topics in an effort to educate the community on the importance of clean water.

Denise Savageau, director of the Greenwich Conservation Commission, gave residents a basic overview of current water quality issues.

According to Ms. Savageau, many people believe chemical toxins to be the greatest risk to the water supply but pathogens are the real concern. Pathogens, which include bacteria, viruses and protozoan, are the number one water issue in the world, contributing to the majority of the nearly 3.5 million deaths caused by water-born diseases each year, she said.

While the United States has an “amazing” level of clean water, that is not the case for a large portion of the world. In fact, said Ms. Savageau, ancient Romans had better water quality than half of the world today. And while the U.S. has superior water quality, challenges remain in maintaining those conditions.

Keeping septic systems clean and properly functioning is crucial to a clean water supply, according to Peggy Minnis, a professor of environmental science at Pace University.

In the U.S., approximately 25% of homes use septic systems, most of which are “completely unmanaged,” Dr. Minnis explained. “The days of big sewer construction are over. We have to start thinking more in terms of having management entities for on-site systems.”

There are several ways for homeowners to keep septic systems functioning properly, according to Dr. Minnis. Some of the most important maintenance tips concern items that should not be disposed of through household drains. Those items include grease or cooking oil, automotive fluids, pesticides, cigarette butts, sanitary materials and any products that claim to be septic starters or cleaners.

The most important recommendation, however, is to minimize water usage, according to Dr. Minnis.

“You don’t want to swamp the septic system,” she said.

Another water issue of interest was the monitoring of beach water and shellfish beds.

Michael Long, director of environmental services for the Greenwich Health Department, spoke in detail about the water testing required by the department, which ensures the maintenance of safe swimming and fishing water.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, the health department conducts frequent water tests at Greenwich beaches to make sure bacteria levels are satisfactory by state standards. If swimming water has an elevated bacteria level, effects on humans may include ear, nose and throat infections or the contraction of hepatitis or salmonella, Mr. Long said. Each instance prompts the department to shut the beach down for at least one day.

Additionally, the Greenwich Shellfish Commission works with the state’s agricultural department to test shellfish beds for indicator organisms which signify problems with water quality, Mr. Long explained. Prior to 1991 shellfish beds had been closed down for 30 years, until extensive water testing in the 1980’s proved the beds to be safe again, he added.

The final panelist of the evening, Department of Public Works Commissioner Amy Siebert, spoke about the importance of Greenwich’s wastewater treatment facility.

According to Ms. Siebert, the town’s Grass Island Wastewater Treatment Plant contains 185 miles of gravity sewer and treats 3.1 billion gallons of wastewater annually. The town is well below its limit on solids and organic matter found in water, as well as its nitrogen limit, as a result of constant maintenance and upgrades made to the facility’s system.

This upkeep costs several million dollars, but “I consider it money well spent,” Ms. Siebert said. “I hope most people do because it helps us keep all that wastewater in the pipes and in the treatment processes.”

As for residents’ roles in keeping the treatment system clean, the commissioner reiterated Dr. Minnis’ recommendations.

Fats, oils and grease, or “FOG,” should never be run down household drains, nor should any products that claim to be “flushable,” Ms. Siebert said.

The town is also focusing on a new standard in Greenwich known as “low impact development,” which concerns drainage systems. According to Ms. Siebert, low impact development is an effort to best use the town’s natural land and resources to drain storm water, as opposed to building large concrete pipes and similar man-made tools to do the job. This includes the use of naturally occurring bacteria, soil products and other natural systems, she said.

Ms. Savageau reminded residents how crucial properly functioning treatment plants and septic systems are to maintaining the community’s water quality. Because of these entities, she said, “We enjoy a very clean Long Island Sound.”


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