Andy Gendaszek dove into the shallow water along Long Lake’s shoreline earlier this week, targeting dark, weedy areas downstream from housing developments.
When he emerged, the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist was grasping handfuls of pondweed.
The common aquatic plant is being used to track excess nutrients in Long Lake. A USGS study will measure nitrogen isotopes in the pondweed’s roots to determine if septic tanks from the 1,300-home Suncrest development in Stevens County are affecting water quality in the reservoir, which is part of the Spokane River.
Hand-pulling the weed is the best way to get the roots, which are essential to the study. They intercept the lake’s groundwater zone, which is where nitrogen isotopes associated with septic systems would show up, Gendaszek said.
The $50,000 study is funded by USGS and the Washington Department of Ecology. It’s part of larger efforts to understand lingering nutrient problems in Long Lake, which lead to algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen levels, Ecology officials said.
But researchers sampling in front of their docks has raised concerns among Suncrest residents. About 65 neighbors attended a Tuesday night meeting on the project, asking if the study is the first step toward requiring sewer hookups in their rural subdivision.
Audience members fired two hours of pointed questions and heated comments at the agency officials. With well-documented nutrient problems all along the 112-mile river, why is the Ecology Department focused on Suncrest’s septic systems? they said.
“They feel like they’re being singled out,” Wes McCourt, a Stevens County commissioner, said after the meeting. “They’re concerned about what it would mean financially to put sewers in. Anytime you’ve got uncertainty, you’ve got anxiety. I think we’ve got a lot of anxiety here.”
The Ecology Department can’t require Suncrest residents to hook up to sewer, said Karin Baldwin, an agency water quality specialist. And the agency hasn’t singled out Suncrest, she added.
The department is looking for ways to reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into the Spokane River. Up to 40 percent comes from runoff, as opposed to direct discharges into the river, Baldwin said.
Residents of upstream communities in Idaho and Washington will pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades at their sewage treatment plants to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorus discharged into the river, she said.
Banning sales of phosphorus-rich detergents was a related effort.
But cleaning up the river also requires targeting the nutrients in runoff, she said. Strategies to address it have sprung up in both rural and urban parts of the Spokane River watershed.
Spokane County recently adopted stricter rules for new septic systems near waterways, and the city of Spokane is working on efforts to control stormwater runoff from streets, Baldwin said. Along Hangman Creek and other tributaries, conservation districts are working with farmers to reduce agricultural runoff and The Lands Council is planting trees and shrubs to curb erosion, which is also a nutrient source.
In looking at how land use affects nutrients flowing into the river, Suncrest also emerged as a priority because of the high concentration of septic systems right along the river, Baldwin said.
Suncrest’s oldest homes date to the mid-1960s. After time, the soils that trap the nutrients in sewage become saturated and can’t absorb more, said Llyn Doremus, an Ecology Department hydrologist. That’s why agency officials suspect that phosphorus and other nutrients from the septic systems are reaching the river.
But it will be several years before answers are available, Baldwin said. The current study requires another season of field work, with results expected in December 2015.
If the first study shows that Suncrest’s septic systems are contributing nutrients to the river, a second study would be needed to define how much, Baldwin said.
Even then, the Ecology Department couldn’t force Suncrest residents to take action, she said. But the information typically starts a community conversation that leads to solutions, Baldwin said.
Additional filters or targeting failing septic systems would be possible solutions, depending on the extent of the problem, she said.
There isn’t a local sewer treatment plant that Suncrest residents could hook up to, said McCourt, the Stevens County commissioner. And even if there was, Suncrest’s one- and two-acre lot sizes would require a sprawling system to collect the effluent, he said.
“We’re equally concerned about how to pay for it,” Baldwin said.
If the studies show that nutrients from septic systems are reaching the river, the Ecology Department would work with the community and other agencies to find money for remedies, she said.
Tish Pope, a Suncrest resident, attended Tuesday’s meeting with her husband. The couple chose to retire in Stevens County because they wanted to live in a rural, conservative community, she said. The prospect of spending tens of thousands of dollars on sewer hookups unsettled her.
Pope and others at the meeting said they’re worried that agency officials have a pre-determined agenda. “We don’t want a sewer forced on us because of a skewed study,” she said.
Reducing nutrients from runoff is a complex problem, said Mike Petersen, executive director for The Lands Council. In the Hangman watershed, where his organization is planting trees, the creek runs brown in the spring from eroding soil carrying nutrients into the stream. And thousands of homes are still on septic systems.
With so many nutrient sources, improving the river’s water quality is going to take multiple actions across the watershed, he said.
“There are a lot of good efforts, but it’s going to take a few years,” Petersen said. “And it will take everyone’s participation if we’re going to get the work done.”
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