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Sewers: A Matter of Time

GFCA discusses future wastewater management in Great Falls.

10 years ago, Mike Kearney never thought he would be standing in front of a group of people in Great Falls talking about sewer systems.

"Sewer was a forbidden word," said Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue Irish Pub in the Great Falls Village Center.

In many ways it still is. Citizens of Great Falls remain wary of bringing a sewer line into their community, as they fear that it will bring over-development and higher density along with it. However, Great Falls Village Center business owners are facing an impending problem. They are using a septic system that is heading for failure — news which is not all that surprising.

"If you know anything about septic systems, it's that they don't last forever," said John Milgrim, environmental health supervisor for the Fairfax County Health Department Division of Environmental Health. "They start failing the minute they are used."

In fact, parts of the Village Center septic system have already failed.

"7-Eleven is a disaster," said Milgrim. "They septic system is gone and they are on pump and haul from now on."

The Great Falls Fire Station and Great Falls Elementary School are not far behind.

"We pump four times a week now," said Steve Ruzila, Chief of the Fire Station. "How much more can we take?"

At last week's Great Falls Citizens Association general membership meeting, Milgrim answered questions about the current septic system in the Village Center. According to Milgrim, thus far the Fairfax County Health Department has not come up with any solutions to the problem — they have simply come out to the Village Center and assessed the situation.

"If we have more problems out here, we will investigate treatment systems," said Milgrim. "There is a lot of new technology. Everyday, there is someone inventing something."

A treatment system is one that pre-treats the sewage, thus requiring less space for the septic system. Another possible strategy would be to remove the soil from the septic system and replace it with new soil.

"Would that be prohibitively expensive?" asked GFCA member Karen Washburn.

Milgrim says that the Health Department prefers not to re-use drain fields.

"We like to go in between them," said Milgrim

According to him, as long as the septic system in the Village Center continues to work, there is no need to bring a sewer line in.

"But will they work 20 years from now?" asked Milgrim. "That's what this group has to ask itself. Right now they are, except at the Fire Station and 7-Eleven. To say whether one is better than the other? I can't say."

SEPTIC SYSTEMS are uncommon these days, but Great Falls has held on to its systems for so long because the community has generally been in favor of the low density that comes along with them. In addition, the soil quality in Great Falls is such that it is very conducive to septic systems.

"Great Falls is blessed with good soils," said Milgrim. "I don't think we've exhausted all the possibilities for the fire station."

Milgrim says that the average lifespan of a septic field is 30 years, if it is used to its maximum capacity. The commercial businesses in the Great Falls Village Center are considered high water users. In fact, businesses that use more than 50 gallons of water a day are prohibited from setting up shop in the Village Center — which is one reason why so many applicants have been turned down by the county.

"We frequently have people asking if the Village Center has a vacancy — hair salons, dog grooming businesses, and especially restaurants," said Milgrim. "But we're restricting them to what they already have there."

Mike Kearney says that while citizens may be averse to more development in Great Falls, the fact is that there will be some, whether they like it or not.

"We all know there is still a lot of developable land in Great Falls," said Kearney. "As the community builds we are going to need to build more services. I'm not saying that you need to bring sewer in, but we need to think about where we are going to be in 10 years."

He added that he can't help but wonder where all of this waste water is going.

"The soils are great but they can only hold so much," he said. "Who knows where this waste is going that we are pumping into the ground? You can't trace it and there are a lot of people on wells in Great Falls."

Despite his concerns, Kearney is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the community happy.

"If we get shut down by the health department, we're prepared to pump and haul," said Kearney. "These are just things to think about. It's our community, we love it here and we need to preserve it."

HOWEVER, MILGRIM says that "pumping and hauling is a bad thing," and those who are currently having to do so agree.

"It's very expensive," said Cristine Ruzila, president of the Great Falls Fire Station.

Ralph Lazaro, president of the Great Falls Business and Professional Association says he, for one, does not want Great Falls to become known as a pump and haul district.

"The firehouse really scares me," said Lazaro. "They should have a state-of-the-art facility. If they are high water users, well they are doing what they need to be doing to be able to save our life and limb."

GFCA member Jack Bowles is chair of the group's wastewater long range planning committee. Bowles is a resident of Riverside Manor, a community that fought against the introduction of sewer to its neighborhoods last year. Bowles says that his committee is focused on exploring all of the possible options for the commercial district in Great Falls.

"It's not about jumping right to sewer," said Bowles. "We have a commitment to the community to explore all of the alternatives … then it's a matter of coming to grips with that alternative. Public sewer in Great Falls is something that we take very seriously."

However, Kearney says he would be interested in finding out the ramifications of creating a small "sewer district" that would only supply a sewer line to the Village Center.

"We worry about development too, and I'm wondering what kinds of restrictions you can place on attaching to the sewer line," said Kearney.

Lazaro says that at this juncture he thinks what needs to be done is more research.

"The intent of this is not to change the character of Great Falls at all, but I think this is a problem that we are going to have to face at some point," said Lazaro. "I don't think that we should agree to anything except that we have a problem."