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Being a Friend to the Environment

GFCA strives to make residents environmentally aware.

During a recent inspection of a failing septic system on a residential property in Great Falls, Environmental Health Supervisor John Milgrim discovered "body washers," a popular feature in the luxury bathrooms of today.

"This is the 21st century," said Milgrim, who works in the Fairfax County Health Department. "They're called body washers, and apparently you just stand there, and they wash your body ... and this house had four showers, all of which had these, on two walls of each shower."

Unfortunately, the convenience and comfort of body washing can come at a high price. Enjoyable though it may be, a shower equipped with multiple nozzles that jettison hot water from various heights and angles, requires a hefty load of water. In a community such as Great Falls, where homes rely on septic systems and not public sewer to handle household waste, such water usage can have serious consequences.

"That kind of water usage could easily overcome a septic system," said Milgrim, who has over 30 years of experience working with septic systems and wells. "When I told the guy how much his septic system could handle, and how much water was shooting out of those body washers per minute, I could see him calculating in his head and then realizing that he could have a 2-minute shower."

Ironically, the wealthy demographics of Great Falls has resulted in the construction of multi-million dollar homes — many of which feature luxurious bathroom amenities such as the body washers encountered by Milgrim. Compounding matters is the fact that residents often purchase their new homes with absolutely no knowledge of what a septic system is, or how it operates. All septic systems have a capacity and a life span, and require a certain level of maintenance.

Milgrim spoke at the Jan. 9 Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) general session meeting — discussing the basic facts of septic systems and offering advice on proper maintenance. Milgrim was invited as part of an initiative by the Citizens Association to educate residents on environmental issues in Great Falls.

"CLEAN AIR, Clean Power, Clean Water" may seem like a tall order, but it is precisely what members of the Great Fall Citizens Association wants to see in their community. That theme, of the Jan. 9 meeting, brought in several guest speakers, in addition to John Milgrim.

Using slides, Milgrim gave examples of various septic systems, and explained how each one operates. According to Milgrim, many residents in Great Falls are unaware of the inner workings of their septic systems.

“Most septic systems have pumps and these things do break, and they do need to be checked — otherwise, you are going to get sewage on the surface and in the streams,” he said. “We preach maintenance all the time.”

Milgrim said the county recommends that residents have their septic tanks pumped every five years. He also urged residents to be mindful of their water use, and to avoid dumping fats, oils, grease and harsh chemicals down the drain. He also advised against excessive use of garbage disposals.

While there are many new and emerging septic system technologies, Milgrim noted that a disadvantage of opting for a newer design is that it may be more difficult to find someone with the knowledge to repair one, should something go wrong. He emphasized that maintenance of a septic system — regardless of the type — is crucial because it extends the life of the system. And unfortunately, all septic systems are doomed to failure in the end.

“If you have a failed septic system that can’t be fixed, then you have to go to pump and haul, which is what 7-Eleven has to do right now,” said Milgrim.

MILGRIM was not the only expert who spoke at the January meeting. Stella Koch, co-chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association environment committee, discussed other environmental issues facing the Great Falls community today.

“Everything we do on this planet has a cost,” said Koch, who is also a Virginia Conservation Associate with the Audubon Naturalist Society, and chair of the Environmental Quality Advisory Council of Fairfax County. “Impervious surface is the enemy ... it’s not the large population — it’s what we’ve done with the land and how we’ve done it.”

Koch explained that impervious surfaces cause excessive surface water runoff, which results in water pollution and unnatural erosion. However, Koch noted that a little planning and foresight is all that is needed to prevent such damage. She cited the construction of the Fairfax County Government Center at the head of one of the area’s most significant watersheds as an example of poor planning.

Tanya Amrhein, an ecologist in the Stormwater Planning Division and Watershed Planning and Assessment Branch of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, also spoke about the importance of managing stormwater runoff. In recent years, Fairfax County has set more stringent building requirements to handle drainage and runoff issues.

“Most places in the county — because they are old — it wasn’t dealt with,” said Amrhein. “Now that so many people live here, you can’t just say ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and shove it downstream.”

When water from a storm hits the ground, it immediately becomes surface water — and as surface water moves and flows along the ground, it comes into contact with a wide range of materials.

“Surface runoff is going to pick up things along the way,” said Amrhein.

Pesticides and fertilizers from grass, garbage lying on the ground and animal feces are just some examples, said Amrhein.

“The reason this is important is because eventually, you’re drinking the water that’s coming from upstream,” she added.

Amrhein also noted that the water in Fairfax County has become so polluted that the county has actually released an official statement warning residents against touching it.

“Fairfax County does not recommend any physical contact with any body of water in the county, which is sad,” said Amrhein.

However, like Koch, Amrhein says that all hope is not lost.

“If all of us change our behaviors, we can have an impact,” she said.

Amrhein recommends that residents only fertilize their lawns “in the fall, if at all.” In addition, she urges residents to have their cars washed at a professional car wash, rather than washing them in the driveway as soapy runoff is a major pollutant. She also advises pet-owners to dispose of pet waste in a trash can.

PAUL BASSETT, president and chief engineer of Hydro-Logix, Inc., gave residents a crash course in how to build a rain garden. Small and strategically located, a rain garden is a natural and easy way for homeowners to manage runoff from their property. Bassett said that it is first necessary to locate the “pinch point” on a property, or the spot where all of the water runoff is collecting. The pinch point is where the rain garden must be planted.

“The garden is being placed between the runoff source and its destination,” said Bassett.

A correctly placed rain garden intercepts and absorbs excessive runoff.

“You’re typically looking at trying to catch an inch of rainfall,” said Bassett. “They can be small, they don’t have to be big… whatever you can do on your home is going to help.”

Bassett advised residents to construct rain gardens at least 10 feet from their homes, and at least 25 feet from their septic fields. In addition, he recommends planting them in full or partial sunlight if possible, and planting them after all nearby development is complete.

“This is a natural process,” said Bassett.

Alden Hathaway, director of the Environmental Resources Trust, discussed how citizens can change their living environment and have an impact on the environment. Hathaway and his wife live in a solar energy home and drive hybrid cars.

"We've reduced our footprint by 60 percent, but we haven't had to change how we live," said Hathaway. "We haven't had to go into the woods and live like hermits ... we have just changed how we use the technology we have."

Hathaway said that Virginia is one of the lowest renewable energy states in the country, despite the fact that it could be using wind and solar energy.

"Coal is cheaper — that's the prevailing wisdom coming from Richmond," said Hathaway.