Only a small percentage of septic systems in St. Mary’s County have been upgraded so far to produce less pollution and there is plenty of money available to do it.
The state has made $1.7 million available for St. Mary’s County, “just waiting to go to property owners,” said Heather Moritz, who administers the bay restoration fund for the St. Mary’s County Health Department.
In years past, the county has given unused money back to the state.
About 70 percent of the 37,064 households in the county use septic systems, with 6,610 of them within 1,000 feet of tidal waters, called the Critical Area. So far, about 200 septic systems have been upgraded to remove more nitrogen to keep it from entering the bay and its tributaries, the health department said. “It’s a very small percentage,” said Daryl Calvano, director of the environmental health division.
In an effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the state in 2004 created the bay restoration fund, requiring everyone on public sewer or septic systems to pay $60 a year.
That money is used to pay for upgrades to sewage treatment plants to reduce the levels of nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and to replace failing septic systems. Excessive nitrogen harms water quality.
Now the Maryland Department of the Environment is mandating all new septic systems include the best available technology to reduce the nitrogen load, effective Jan. 1. Any property owner who obtains a septic system construction permit before that will be exempt from the requirement.
The nitrogen reducing technology costs between $12,636 and $14,526. A typical septic system produces about 9 pounds of nitrogen a year. The new technology reduces that by half, Calvano said.
“We want to utilize all the funding that is available to the county” for septic system upgrades, he said. “If we continue to give money back, [the Maryland Department of Environment] has the ability to adjust where money is directed.”
In fiscal 2011, St. Mary’s received $843,000 and gave back $136,000, Moritz said. The next year, the health department got $907,000, but returned $240,000.
There is a sliding income scale to qualify for funding from the state. A single property owner can get 100 percent funding to upgrade making up to $83,600 of taxable income. A married couple making up to $139,350 qualifies for 100 percent funding.
There are four priorities for receiving funding to upgrade a septic system. The most consideration goes to failing systems within the Critical Area, followed by failing systems outside the Critical Area, then new construction or a voluntary upgrade within the Critical Area and new construction or a voluntary upgrade outside the Critical Area.
Typically there are 30 to 40 failing septic systems a year in St. Mary’s, Moritz said.
St. Mary’s County has the second highest density of single-family homes within the Critical Area, behind Anne Arundel County, Calvano said.
An upgrade can be installed fairly quickly, Moritz said.
The grant pays for the tank, the labor, the electrical hookup and maintenance for five years.
“This is the largest estuary in our country,” Calvano said. “This is a model project for the whole country.”
The environmental health division can be reached at 301-475-4321.