Less bacteria means cleaner streams

Haywood Waterways, Environmental Health Department work to repair septic systems
Oct 17, 2013

A program to repair failing septic systems is helping streams in the Richland Creek watershed flow cleaner. A single broken septic system can release as much as 360 gallons of untreated human wastewater each day into nearby streams.

The program is run by Haywood Waterways Association and the Haywood County Environmental Health Department. Since 2006, Haywood Waterways has received $105,000 in grant funds to fix septic issues. Their most recent grant was $29,000 from the Pigeon River Fund of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and was used to repair eight systems this year. In total, the partnership has repaired 31 systems and prevented as much as 11,000 gallons of untreated wastewater from entering local streams each day.

A typical failure contains both black and gray water. Black water is the human fecal waste from toilets. Gray water is the waste from sinks, washing machines, dishwashers and showers. Fixing these problems means less bacteria, viruses, household chemicals, pharmaceuticals and nutrients in streams. A failing system can be easily recognized by foul odors, soggy soil, liquid waste on the surface or excessive grass growth near the system.

Bacteria and viruses from the human digestive tract can cause serious health problems. Health hazards include ear infections, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis and dysentery. People can get sick from swallowing disease-causing organisms, or from pathogens entering the body through cuts in skin, the nose, mouth or ears. Ingredients in household chemicals and medicines can kill or maim wildlife, and even disrupt their ability to reproduce.

Excessive nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen typically found in soaps and detergents, can cause nuisance algal blooms that can be deadly to aquatic organisms. The algal blooms also affect recreation, particularly swimming and fishing.

“It’s tough to drag a fishing lure, run a boat motor or swim in algae-covered water," said Eric Romaniszyn, Haywood Waterways’ executive director.

Richland Creek is on the state list of impaired waterways, in part due to high bacteria levels. Improvements to the stream are benefiting all users, including working farms, recreational enthusiasts and drinking water suppliers.

For example, “There are studies that show cattle will grow up to 20 percent better on clean water versus contaminated water," said Leslie Smathers from the Haywood Soil & Water Conservation District.

Richland Creek is a valuable tourist attraction that helps bring in dollars to the community.

“The cleanliness of Richland Creek is very valuable in my work," said Tim Petrea, recreation program specialist fromm the Town of Waynesville. "It enhances the opportunities for our camps, senior programs and home school programs — they get the opportunity to play and learn in the creek. It gives families and individuals the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time by fishing, wading or just sitting by the water. It is one of the drawing points to our park.”

Waynesville is labeled a “Mountain Heritage Trout Water City” by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. In the Commission’s study, “The Economic Impacts of Mountain Trout Fishing in North Carolina,” they found the total economic output of their trout management program exceeded $174 million and supported 1,997 jobs, and that Haywood County was one of the most popular destinations for trout fishing.

Benefits for Richland Creek and Waynesville also mean benefits for Lake Junaluska. The Assembly brings in over $50 million per year to the local economy from tourism and conferences. Due to much higher water quality, the Assembly has started hosting triathlons, a water skiing event and Haywood Waterways’ Polar Plunge Benefit for Kids in the Creek.

“We believe no one intentionally harms our rivers and streams; everyone finds value in clean water," Romaniszyn added. "Those having problems like failing septic systems or eroding driveways most often just lack the technical and financial resources to fix the issue. Programs like this one are win-win; the homeowner’s property is fixed and everybody has cleaner water.”

Haywood Waterways and the Environmental Health Department will continue the septic repair program as long as grant funds can be obtained. The partners have two pending applications and are planning a third in spring 2014. Anyone interested in financial assistance should contact Haywood Waterways at 476-4667 or the Environmental Health Department at 452-6675.