Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Inspector Screening

Flickr: Natty Dread
Septic systems get far less attention than they warrant, considering how severely they affect our watersheds. Maryland delegates much of the monitoring and control of onsite sewage disposal systems (OSDS) to the counties. Calvert County's monitoring and control from the Public Health Department seems to be limited to checking installers, but they don't take measures to ensure or even encourage valid inspections. When I asked them for a list of inspectors, they sent me their list of installers. I called back to see if there was an inspector list and was told that all the installers are tested and are qualified to conduct inspections. I then called a random company on the list and asked about having a septic system inspection performed. The septic guy they referred me to told me that he had never done an inspection and seemed to think that many home inspectors do a decent job by flowing water into the tank and looking for evidence of seepage. That's the type of inspector the University of Maryland extension warns against.

It turns out that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) does keep a list of individuals who have taken a one day course in OSDS inspections. I can use this list in conjunction with the list of installers licensed by the county to pare down the candidates for my inspection. I will look for local inspectors who aren't installers, because I think there could be a conflict of interest that would push an inspector/installer to fail your system in the hope of getting some big ticket repair work.

Either way, the inspector to hire is someone who follows the recommendations of MDE on how to conduct inspections. They should also use a checklist like the one published by MOWPA. Screening on the phone should include finding out whether they dig to uncover the distribution box and drain tiles. It will be interesting to find out how many of the inspectors listed by MDE as trained actually measure up.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

September is for Septic Systems

Though I am a septic skeptic, I still depend on my septic system and want to become a responsible system owner even as I wean us off the practice of dumping in our drinking water. I want to encourage others to be responsible septic system owners, too, so I will do what I can to put together an awareness-raising drive with the help of materials in the toolkit provided by the EPA for septic-smart week (Sept. 19 - 23). At least I can put up some posters; maybe do some door-to-door handouts, making initial contact with homeowners who may be good candidates for conversion to humanure composting.

One thing I've never done that the EPA recommends is hire an inspector every three years to see if my septic system is developing problems. Since I have violated several other guidelines over my 11 years of ownership pertaining to protecting the integrity of my system, I may actually have a failed or failing system and not even know it. Most homeowners are probably in the same boat, not even thinking of having an inspection done until it's time to sell. An inspection now may be timely for us in that regard, as well.

Just looking into the topic of septic systems has given me some other useful awareness. I was planning to plant some shrubs over my drain field, and now, having learned better, I'm looking forward to planting self-seeding annual flowers there instead. There might also be a good area near the end of the drain field for my humanure compost bins. If that somehow negatively affects the capacity of the septic system, the reduced load in the tank may be enough to compensate.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The #1 Source of Pollution in Our Watershed

The 7 million or so gallons of sewage that spilled from wastewater treatment plants into a couple of the Chesapeake Bay's tributaries two weeks ago turned my head in a new direction. It redirected me on my capstone project for the Watershed Stewards Academy to focus on humanure in my neighborhood. Septic tanks are the current locus of the problem. Particularly problematic are failed septic systems in which sewage resurfaces and then gets washed by storm runoff into surface water.

The environmental impact of failed septic systems can be estimated using a figure from Purdue University stating that one failed system will discharge 76,650 gallons of sewage to the surface in one year. Extending that to an estimate of the number of homes in the critical area of the Chesapeake Ranch Estates, and applying a factor of 10%, which is the EPA's estimate of the proportion of septic system failures, and the annual amount of sewage flowing overland from this 1,000 foot wide zone stretching about 1 mile along the Chesapeake Bay comes to 3.8 million gallons. It could be double or triple that, depending on the actual failure rate, which has be estimated at over 30% in some states. Project that kind of problem all along the coastline of the bay and its tributaries and the wastewater treatment plants end up smelling like a rose.

Maryland's laws pertaining to poop aren't all that stringent. Farmers are allowed to dump manure on their fields. Homeowners are allowed to spread it on their lawns. If the fertilizer limits on nitrogen are applied to manure (phosphorus is actually the more limiting element), you could legally put 40 pounds of horse manure on a 1,000 sq. ft. lawn in a single application. Not that anyone would, but you could instead apply 20 pounds of humanure to the same lawn and remain under the nitrogen limits. A failed septic system used by a family of four would expel roughly 700 pounds of excrement (assuming toilets outside the home are used 50% of the time) to the land. That amounts to over 35 times the nitrogen limit for lawn fertilization (humanure contains 5% - 7% N). And that's just the poo! There is also a lot of urine and other nasty liquids in the mix with a whole lot more nitrogen.

It is hard to say whether the nutrient-laden runoff or the 100 or so pathogens in the sewage are a greater problem. Research published in 2015 from leading experts in the field of water sustainability shows that pathogens from septic systems make it into surface water much more than what authorities had believed. The pathogens are pretty scary, but to fish and other marine life, nutrient overload can quickly become deadly.

Keep in mind that all septic systems, working or not, tend to pollute the environment. The total amount of nitrogen loading to the Chesapeake Bay watershed from septic systems in Calvert County exceeds that from every other category,
Photo by Jim Barter
which includes agriculture, urban runoff, forests, and wastewater treatment plants. On average, the amount of nitrogen entering the watershed from a septic system is 19 pounds per year, based on calculations using figures from the Calvert County Watershed Implementation Plan. That is equivalent to dumping lawn fertilizer for over twenty 1,000 sq. ft. applications straight into the bay.  Every house.  Every year. The pathogens (including certain bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other parasites)  in the effluent from working septic systems also make it into groundwater to one degree or another. In areas where septic systems are greatly concentrated, such as the Chesapeake Ranch Estates, both pollutant types will make the surrounding waters inhospitable to man or beast.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Anti-Septic Solutions

Clivus (pronounced "cleevus") Multrum toilets are a brand of composting toilets that have received the "best available technology" (BAT) designation in Maryland, which means they could be used as alternatives to septic tanks if combined with greywater systems on new construction. They could also allow reduction of septic tank sizes by 30% when installed without a greywater system. If folks want to bypass the 5-year recurring requirement for a groundwater discharge permit, they might try using the composted urine from the toilet as a nitrogen booster to compost high carbon material in a separate long-term, thermogenic compost pile. One drawback to this and other types of waterless toilets that require a vent fan is that you might want to include a backup source of power to keep the fan running during power outages. Another is that it may cost you more to heat and/or cool your home due to the continuous venting through the toilet.

All of this is particularly relevant to someone who has a home in the critical area (within 1,000 feet of a tidal waterbody or wetland) in Maryland. Structures outside the critical area will probably not be subjected to the expense of a change to their septic system, now that Gov. Hogan has announced a turnabout on the mandate for denitrifying septic systems. Homeowners who must still upgrade could take the Multrum toilet/greywater route, though it is not clear whether regulations would still require them to own a septic system and if it would still need to be upgraded. The new tack being taken by the Hogan administration may favor the composting toilet/greywater system option in lieu of costly septic system upgrades. One person I know with a house in the critical area told me his septic system would cost him $20K to upgrade due to the very deep leach field it requires.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) does not condone the use of compost that is harvested from composting toilets and says that it should be bagged and sent to landfills. There are no laws that specifically prohibit use of this compost on one's own property, though the low composting temperature of Clivus Multrum toilets means that owners should limit the compost use to ornamentals (roundworms being a possibility, and all).

What MDE and the general public need to wrap their minds around is that we must get comfortable with humanure composting. Once you get into compost gardening, you start to realize how valuable and scarce compost is. Compost is also valuable outside of gardening. We are not going to be able to continue the highly polluting practice of synthetic fertilizer production from natural gas if we want to keep from burning up the planet. Christophe Pelletier lays it out for us in economic terms,
In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.
Now, if manure is going to be so important to growing food in the future, let's not rule out humanure until after a thorough investigation of its appropriateness.

Pelletier weighs the value of manure against the future cost of synthetic fertilizer, but the carbon cost could also be factored in. Compost, in general, can be helpful in reducing greenhouse gasses. The points made by the U.S. Composting Council could be easily extended to include humanure compost.

If the least expensive and most effective method (using a bucket and manually adding your scat to a compost pile) seems too undignified or time-consuming, composting toilets are another option better than sticking with the sewer or septic systems that are currently harming our environment. In Maryland, we are fortunate to have an authorized distributor of Clivus Multrum toilets with plentiful experience.
Compost Fit for a Prince

Thursday, August 18, 2016

No Peaking

The human world's consumption of energy and consequent production of waste heat shown on the graph here reminds me of the microbial activity observed in my compost piles by way of temperature readings. The scale would need adjusting to read in degrees Fahrenheit, but the initial climb and plateau are quite similar. The second heating phase (China joining the world economy) would be analogous to adding another huge batch of well-chopped organic matter to the pile; it brings the temperature even higher, but the effect is relatively short-lived. Once the temperature of the pile peaks at about 160 degrees, the microbial population can no longer tolerate those conditions and there is a rapid die-off causing the temperature to drop to near ambient.
Without resorting to manurial metaphor, Gail Tverberg explains how the current downturn in per capita energy consumption could well continue into a complete collapse of our current way of life. Rather than ascribing the cause to peak oil, as it is usually construed, she explains how demand destruction aggravated by enormous debt could, ultimately, be what drives our economy into ruins.
Industry hacks make lipstick out of oil and put it on the pig of energy production. Mentioning "peak oil" in conversation conjures up the idea of oil shortages, when, in fact, there is no apparent shortage presently. Though the energy quandary the world faces presently was ushered in by peak oil and peak coal, it may be better to side step the cognitive dissonance and characterize the issue as a population problem. Talking in terms of "population overshoot" or "carrying capacity" encompasses all resources, not just energy. It also brings in the even more daunting notion of the developing latest extinction of the biosphere.
Upon hearing the vision statement of a big ag oriented talk on the state of agribusiness in Maryland, I raised the question of whether the authors' views of a foreseeable future took into account peak oil. The answer was no, which led me to take many of the conclusions presented with a grain of salt. Later, in a different context, I brought up the importance of preserving biodiversity in Calvert County, which raised more discussion, but my earlier peak oil concern never got much air time. 
Raising the carrying capacity flag, rather than the peak oil flag, implicitly postulates a global context. The term is more immune to dismissal by our inured belief that substitutes can be found for everything, because it implies that limits exist. Peak oil is usually discounted by the idea that additional peaks in newly exploited resources will come along, as needed, to endlessly boost total energy production. However, pointing out that we need to withdraw our footprint from half of the earth's surface if mankind is to have a chance at a secure future brings the scope of the problem into clearer focus and sets the context to address planning in the light of population overshoot and carrying capacity. 
Jumping down from a global scale, solutions can be cast in a local frame since ecosystems function globally, continentally, regionally, locally, and microscopically . Hence, in the discussion of the future of agriculture in Maryland, a renewed program to preserve and restore wilderness in our county makes sense, though it would likely reduce land available for agriculture. This would push us to more intensive and careful stewardship of land resources, whereas peak oil, of necessity, pushes us toward smaller, more localized agricultural enterprises. Either way, we end up with a vision far different than the one proffered by big ag advocates.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Local Legalities wrt Reducing Septic Tank Usage

The Chesapeake Ranch Estates (CRE), where I live in Lusby, Maryland is a good place to promote humanure composting. Every one of our 4,000+ unique single-family dwellings is connected to a septic tank. About one-tenth of our residences are in the critical area, magnifying, manyfold, their potential for polluting the Bay. The EPA standard for septic system density is at 40 systems per square mile, an area's groundwater is most likely being overly contaminated. CRE's septic system density is around 900 systems per square mile.
"Stoplight, Septic Truck, and the Sea" by C.C. Chapman
Calvert County's phase II Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) to help reduce pollution of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is relying on a few demanding measures to improve the nitrogen removing performance of septic systems. By installing denitrifying septic systems, they can eliminate up to 93% of nitrogen discharge to the watershed from those sites. The government's cost to execute the WIP will require double the current budget, but a lot of the cost will be borne by homeowners who would have to install the improved systems at costs up to $12,000. Failed septic systems, new systems, and existing systems belonging to homes being sold would all require the expensive new technology. The WIP says nothing to encourage alternatives such as composting toilets.

The Maryland Department of the Environment makes the composting toilet alternative only mildly attractive by allowing a dwelling's septic system to be sized about 1/3 smaller.  The regulations only address waterless toilets in the context of waste disposal. In particular, they address “On-site disposal” which they define as "the disposal of sewage effluent beneath the land surface." They also levy additional permitting and inspection requirements on owners of waterless toilet systems that dispose of the sewage on-site. The whole process would appear to drive the on-site disposal alternative into the loss bracket for most homeowners.

The regulations do not delve into the possibility of recycling the manure through thermogenic
Photo by Scot Nelson
composting in bins above the ground. With that approach, once it is fully composted and cured, the material is no longer "sewage" and applying it to gardens can't be properly described as "disposal." The absence of regulation on this topic leaves it up to the citizenry as to whether they recycle their excreta, though there may also be local rules to deal with. My guess is that the county would jump at the opportunity to take nitrogen credit for hundreds of households that have stopped flushing toilets into their septic tanks and, instead, make water purifying compost out of humanure.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Campaign Wrought In Extremis

Social marketing (ne: social media) stems from the field of public health. A lot of it involves consciousness raising. My consciousness about our utterly disastrous approach to wastewater recycling was recently piqued by overflow incidents in Howard County which allowed over 7 million total gallons of untreated sewage to discharge into the Patuxent and Patapsco Rivers.
Photo by DrewsTheOne
Former state senator Bernie Fowler, a long-time champion of cleaning up the Patuxent ever since a historic sewage overflow incident spurred him to the cause, lamented that he probably won't live to see a restored Patuxent after last week's incident. Sewage overflows into our waterways are a public health nightmare, as well as environmentally devastating.

The root cause of the problem of sewage in our rivers is not a matter of how well we operate wastewater treatment facilities, nor is it flooding brought on by increased stormwater. The root cause is that we treat sewage as waste and not as a resource, because, if we did, we would not dispose of it, but recycle, i.e. compost, it. Composting is best done as close as possible to the source and point of final application. People should, wherever possible, compost their excrement hyper-locally.

Other than the general public and wildlife, the beneficiaries of adopting humanure composting would be gardeners and foresters. Humanure compost can be used wherever standard compost is used, provided it is made with care pertaining to temperature and curing time. It is also a good fit for biochar.

Culturally, there is a great challenge to getting USAnians to adopt humanure composting. One of the precepts of social marketing is that culture trumps strategy, so adaptation to culture is necessary in all cases. The audience to target in this campaign is going to have to be avid composters who have no worries about personal injury liability stemming from their methods and inputs. Not that thermogenically composted humanure is unsafe, it's just that most here can't shake their fecophobic preconceptions.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wholistic Medicine

Health is a major concern in my household these days. My wife's diabetes has resulted in numerous hospital stays over the years, many of which involved surgery, as with her recent foot injury from which she is slowly recovering. Several members of our church attended a workshop last year to begin collectively educating our congregation on diabetes and how to guard against it. Our campaign hasn't gone very far yet, but having learned about social marketing at my most recent Watershed Stewards Academy session, I have a new toolset to try out.

Our other household member, Gretchen the rottweiler,
has had her share of health issues lately, too, though she is only three years old. The major problem started last winter when she tore her cranial cruciate ligament (CCL), which ended up costing us around $4,000 to surgically repair. No sooner had she finished recovering from that, and then she came down with urinary incontinence. Visits to the vet, medication, and flooring replacement are probably going to amount to costs for this issue in the same range as the CCL treatment. Our pet healthcare costs are all out of pocket, so we are going to make extra effort to shop for more economic options.

For Gretchen's incontinence (which we have learned is more common in her breed, especially for dogs with docked tails and for those which have been spayed) we first tried Proin, which did not have any effect...More days in the backyard and nights of leaks on the floor (we haven't quite mastered the doggie diaper, yet)...Next, we ordered an herb based remedy, which we have not yet received, but the outcome should be known in a month.

Our vet had recommended we try DES, but Dr. Mercola's Healthy Pets website points out dangers of side-effects from that medication. It is also expensive. We hope the herbal potion that we ordered works. Dr. Karen Becker  (Dr. Mercola's veterinary counterpart) also recommends another natural product that targets glandular imbalances. Dr. Becker also suggests acupuncture and chiropractic as treatment options, though I think those would be hard to find in our area.

Dr. Mercola's radical, anti-medical establishment view is refreshing and encouraging. This is a new effort for us at using commercial natural remedies. Past attempts have met with unsensational results. Maybe this time will be better and we can have more hope in the future than what we see in our current healthcare complex.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Maximizing Health Benefits from Cultivated Crops

Many of  mushrooms' medicinal properties come from agents they use to protect themselves from pathogens in their environment. Mycelial hyphae are only one cell wall thick, so they must be well armed to fight off whatever threats come their way.

Plants behave similarly to mycelium by manufacturing chemical agents to stave off invaders. It would seem that these special chemicals would also be of use to humans who cook and consume their hosts, just as when they eat mushrooms.

Without going into a plant by plant breakdown of these medicinal compounds, we can still consider what it takes to maximize their presence in our food. Just growing and cooking your own food is the most important step to improving nutritional and pharmacological content in your diet.

Some vegetables lose a large percentage of their nutrients in the transition from farm to table. Considering those from the list of important nutrient sources in my last post,

  • Produce items to eat ASAP after harvesting include strawberries, mushrooms, parsley, snap beans, and spinach. 
  • Tomatoes are best ripened on the vine. Grocery store tomatoes are often picked green and ripened on the way to market, but are not as nutritious as vine-ripened tomatoes.
  • Darker tomatoes have more lycopene than light colored varieties. 
  • Garlic should be left uncooked for 10 minutes after cutting or pressing to allow a chemical reaction that creates allicin to occur.
Plants get the majority of their chemical constituents from the surrounding soil, so rich soil is the key to maximizing plant food and medicinal value. Healthy plants, grown in healthy soil have a richer store of medicinal agents, since they did not need to expend them all fighting off soil-borne foes. Healthy soil is, principally, deep topsoil with good structural, textural, mineral, hydrological, and biological properties. Organic matter is a key component of healthy soil. Biochar and earthworms multiply and stabilize the effects of added organic matter.
Photo by Charles Wiriawan

Organic gardening and farming are not only good for the environment, but also a path to High Performance Agriculture, producing the most nutrition, yield, and pharmacological benefit.
The most healthy plants, according to Amish farmer +John Kempf, are those that have attained the pinnacle in his plant's version of Maslow's hierarchy, going beyond microbial resistance to being able to chemically fend off attacks by insects through manufacturing of plant secondary metabolites (PSM's). I think a good test of how well my soil and plants are doing on this score is to see how disease free they are when grown at our community garden surrounded by other plots whose owners often ignore organic principles, leading to an external environment rife with biological threats. Progress was made this year, but we still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Help Yourself

Before alleviating injuries and prolonged neglect with herbal remedies, an even more fundamental step is giving our bodies their best fighting chance by supplying them with all the resources they need. Following the general rules prescribed by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is important, but if people are like plants, then something akin to Liebig's Law of the Minimum also pertains. The Law of the Minimum states that the overall health of a plant is limited by scarcity of the nutrient(s) that it most lacks.

The Dietary Guidelines tells us which nutrients tend toward deficiency in American diets. These include potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C. Two others, iron and folate, are important for women. Limiting the amount of meat in one's diet makes access to these nutrients even more challenging, but I believe that the crops and poultry I raise now or in the near future on a relatively small area will be sufficient to satisfy all of my nutritional demands. Here's how I hope to get my victuals:

  • Calcium (for nerve transmission and cardiovascular system) - dark leafy greens
  • Potassium (prevent bone loss) - potatoes (sweet or regular), beet greens, white beans
  • Fiber (lower heart disease risk) - beans
  • Choline (prevent muscle & liver damage) - eggs
  • Magnesium (regulate diverse biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation; essential for energy) - green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, potatoes
  • Vitamin A (eyes, skin, immune system) - darkly colored orange or green vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and kale; and orange fruits such as cantaloupe and peaches
  • Vitamin C (wound healing, brain function) - strawberries, kiwipeppers, tomatoes, broccoli, and spinach
  • Vitamin D (strong bones) - sun-dried shiitake mushrooms, other mushrooms, eggs
  • Vitamin E (antioxidant) - nuts, green leafy vegetables
Photo by Olearys

For staples, calorie dense crops like grain corn, peanuts, cabbage and winter squash will also be important. The only thing to add is watermelon, which is also a staple (since it is 95% water). At this point, lacking nut and egg production, I will continue to rely on purchased products to satisfy some of these requirements, but dietary self-sufficiency appears to be coming into reach. 

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