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Cleaning up the Bay One Family at a Time

By paying Flush Tax, we’re all helping

Rob and Brandi Pryke gawked at the commotion in the front yard of their modest home in Calvert County; their well-kept lawn was being attacked by a backhoe digging a hole big enough to bury a large SUV. The assault was the culmination of a chain of events that started in 2008, a year after they bought the house, and shifted into high gear three months ago. That’s when Brandi noticed the toilets didn’t seem to be flushing correctly, and there was water accumulating in the side yard. The Prykes’ septic tank and drain field had failed.
    “It was very stressful. You can see your roof and monitor the condition it’s in,” she said. “But the septic tank and drain field are underground. You don’t know there’s a problem until something fails.”
    Now their yard is a construction site. Backhoes and bobcats have crowded in. The centerpiece, an enormous tank, is surrounded by another large tank and lots of miscellaneous parts and tools. A crew of contractors runs the machines that dig the holes and lower the tanks to the bottom of the pits.
    The Prykes are getting their entire septic system replaced. Look around and you know this is a very expensive project. Fortunately, the Prykes have help.
    In 2004 the Maryland legislature created the Bay Restoration Fund. To date, the Fund has provided $628 million statewide to help clean up the Bay on many fronts. Financed by fees on users of public wastewater treatment plants and on individual septic systems, the Bay Restoration Fund will spend over $15 million this year to help Maryland homeowners like the Prykes replace septic systems. Those millions pay for state-of-the-art systems that significantly reduce the nitrogen released into the Bay.
    This year Calvert County will get $1.268 million of that total to help local homeowners do their part to improve water quality in the Bay by replacing aging septic systems. Anne Arundel County — more than five times Calvert’s size — will have $3.049 million to spend on septic improvement.

Septic Troubles
    The Prykes moved from Andrews Air Force Base in 2007, buying their house in St. Leonard. Rob is an aviation electrician’s mate in the Navy, working at Andrews. Brandi is a stay-at-home mom looking after their three kids.
    They did all the customary inspections; the septic system got a clean bill of health. A year later, they had a routine pumping of their septic tank. The contractor told the Prykes about the Bay Restoration Fund and recommended they apply for funding to get the system upgraded to a more modern version. Aware of the problem with excessive nitrogen in the Bay from septic systems, Rob filled out the application but soon found out there’s a strict priority list for allocating the money. Since his home was not in the Critical Area (within 1,000 feet of the Bay) nor was his system failing, it ­didn’t make the cut for available funds.
    Fast forward to March, when Brandi noticed the problem with their toilets and the wet side yard. A contractor quickly determined the drain field was clogged and the tank failing. Rob submitted the Bay Restoration Fund application again. This time the outcome was different: since their septic system was now failing, they had the priority to qualify for a grant from the fund.

Bay Restoration Calvert Style
    Each county in Maryland decides how to administer its share of the restoration fund. In Calvert County, the process is designed to make things fast, easy and as inexpensive as possible for the homeowner. The county has selected a preferred manufacturer for the equipment and has negotiated prices; Calvert pays the manufacturer directly for the equipment and the installation covered by the grant, so the homeowner only has to provide the cash for any items not covered by the grant. Eight local contractors are trained and approved to install these systems.
    The first step is a site survey by the Health Department and the Restoration Fund grants manager. Then come design work, discussions with contractors and, finally, construction. Also part of the process: a clear discussion on what the grant will pay for and what it won’t. While it pays for a state-of-the-art septic system (known as Best Available Technology or BAT), it won’t pay to cut down trees, move or replace fences or patios or replace the drain field. The Prykes’ drain field was failing; it’s replacement will cost them $7,000 of their own money.
    Steve Kullen works for Calvert County Department of Community Planning. As the grants manager, his job is to determine who qualifies for the grant funds, and — once someone does — to move the paperwork through the bureaucracy as quickly as possible with the least pain for the homeowner. He’s been doing this since the first funds were distributed in 2007; that year grants paid for 58 new systems in the county. Since 2004, the fund has provided Calvert County $6.4 million, allowing the replacement of 462 systems. Calvert expects to replace about 100 systems this year. There’s a way to go. An estimated 80 percent of the homes in the county are on septic systems. That translates to about 28,000 systems countywide.
    In the Prykes’ case, Kullen met his goal of fast turn-around. Rob Pryke submitted his application on March 14; the backhoe started digging the hole for his new system on Tuesday, May 27. By Friday of that week, everything was wrapped up — An amazingly short time for getting the home approved for funding, the planning and permitting completed, the contractor lined up, and the work finished.
    The other half of the Calvert team is Matt Cumers of the Maryland State Health Department, who is assigned to Calvert County. Cumers facilitates the design and permits, approves the design and does the final inspection of the system.
    “Something always goes wrong,” Cumers tells Bay Weekly.
    In the Prykes’ case, two somethings. The manufacturer delivered an incorrect component, and the electric lines were not where they were expected to be, necessitating a last-minute move of the new drain field location.
    “This is typical,” Cumers reports.
    He approves the shift of the drain field, and in a few days the manufacturer has supplied the correct component. Four days after the ground breaking, the job is done.
    The Prykes have only good things to say about the support they got from Kullen and Cumers: “Amazing; they always called us back promptly; they wanted to get this job done as much as we did,” says Brandi. Rob adds, “They’ve been great.”

One Happy Family
    For the Prykes, spring 2014 was unpleasant. While their old system was in a failed condition, they had to pump their septic tank about once a month at a cost of $235. That hurt, as will the $7,000 they will have to pay for the new drain field. The Bay Restoration Fund kicking in approximately $14, 000 for the new septic system eases the pain.
    The installation is over, their yard has been regraded and the grass reseeded, all covered by the fund. In a few months, the contractor will return to take care of any settling that might occur. The older Pryke children, ages nine and 11, “are very excited about this,” their mother says. “They learn so much in school about the Bay, protecting the Bay and cleaning up the Bay, they are happy to be part of it.”

Bay Restoration Fund:
Calvert County program:
Anne Arundel County program:
The Bay Restoration Fund in Anne Arundel County
    In Anne Arundel County, the Bay Restoration Grant is administered by the Bureau of Environmental Health, part of the county health department. Having more population and more miles of shoreline, Anne Arundel will receive a little over $3 million this year compared to Calvert County’s $1.2 million. The $3 million will fund almost 200 new systems. Since inception, the fund has provided almost $10 million to replace more than 800 tanks in the county.
    Anne Arundel’s program is similar to that of Calvert County. Failing systems in the critical area have top priority. In addition, Anne Arundel now uses the fund to help existing houses that currently have a septic system connect to a public sewer, if one is available. The county also has a provision to provide financial assistance to low or moderate incomes to help with drain fields and other related items.
    Fast processing time is also important to Anne Arundel Health Department; their typical time from application to installation is six weeks.
How the Technology Works
    The standard septic system relies on anaerobic bacteria to break down waste. Anaerobic bacteria thrive in an environment with no oxygen, like a traditional septic tank. This is a tried-and-true technology used in millions of septic systems throughout the country. Wastewater enters the system; effluent exits the system via the drain field.
    But anaerobic bacteria do nothing to reduce the nitrogen level in the effluent. This nitrogen is bad for the Bay and other waterways, causing algae blooms and other problems. Home septic systems are not the only source of nitrogen entering the Bay, but they are a big one — and a fixable one.
    To the rescue comes another kind of organism, aerobic bacteria. Working together, the two types break down nitrogen and release it into the air. But aerobic bacteria need an environment rich in oxygen to thrive. Many designs of new technology systems add a second tank that functions as a petri dish for aerobic bacteria. This tank type has multiple fabric screens to provide surface area for the bacteria to grow and air circulation to provide the oxygen required. The waste is circulated between the anaerobic tank and the aerobic tank so both types of bacteria can do their jobs.
    The new systems are more complex than the traditional systems. In Calvert County, the grant pays for a five-year maintenance and monitoring agreement. These systems monitor their own functions and are typically connected to the manufacturer via a phone line or the Internet. The homeowner doesn’t have to keep an eye on the system; If the system detects a problem, it sends a message to the manufacturer, who takes the appropriate actions, including notifying the homeowner.