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How's The Water? Part 2

Lake Bloomington is the main source of drinking water for the city of Bloomington. The lake is also a popular recreation destination. In recent years, it’s increasingly become a site for large, and in some cases, year-round homes.

The homes along the lake all use septic systems to dispose of human waste. They discharge treated effluent to within just a few feet of the lake. In Part Two of the investigative series, “How’s The Water?” a growing number of experts question the wisdom of having these septic systems so close to the city’s drinking water supply. WGLT’s Judy Valente has the story.

Growing up in Normal, Brad Norris spent many afternoons fishing off a boat on Lake Bloomington.

“It’s an important part of my life and now my kids’ life. Having three kids of my own, I get to bring them out here to introduce them to the outdoors, recreating outside instead of being stuck on a couch in front of video game. It’s very important to have this out here and have it carry on through the years,” Norris said.

Norris is active in EverBloom, a citizen group that monitors the health of Lake Bloomington. These days, Norris looks out from his boat at what he calls “small mansions” dotting the lake shore and sees a potential threat to his beloved lake.

Many of these homes started out as small summer cabins. But increasingly homeowners are replacing those structures with much larger and in some cases year-round residences. The homes all use private septic systems that dispose of their waste within a few feet of Lake Bloomington, the major source of drinking water for the city.

Septic field of 'finite duration'

“The biggest concern for myself is the septic systems because of how many people do live out here all year, and how the septic systems are kept up and what are the regulations in regards to when they build a larger home on a spot where a small cabin used to be and number of bathrooms that are being used and their leach fields. Are they being properly filtered before getting into our lake?” Norris added.

It’s troubling trend not to only Norris, but also to Bob Yehl, director of Bloomington’s water department.

“Those houses were originally made for weekend retreats as bungalows and what not and they’ve been expanded over the years,” Yehl said. “A lot of septic fields are within the watershed very close to the lake. And by nature everybody’s going to be concerned, not just the city, but the leaseholders and everybody who lives there. They understand they have a piece of leased ground with a septic field of finite duration and they don’t want to contaminate lake any more than we want that.”

Health department not monitoring active systems

Some 250 homes with septic systems sit along Lake Bloomington. Those systems are supposed to properly disinfect and dispose of sewage and other waste before it gets near the lake. Oversight for that falls to the McLean County Health Department. But there is no regular schedule for inspections.

“We currently don’t have a program to where we check active septic systems,” said John Hendershott, environmental health supervisor for the county health department. “There is not a requirement to inspect them on a regular basis. The resources to do something like that would require four of five new employees.”

The county issues a construction permit whenever a septic system is first put in. The system is then not inspected again unless a house is sold or placed under a new lease, or an obvious problem, like sewage leakage, arises.

“It is certainly possible there could be a failed system up there we don’t know about,” Hendershott said. “If it was brought to our attention, we’d go out and do something about it. Currently there is no way to say this person’s septic system is discharging into the lake or not.”   

Risk for disease-bearing bacteria

Angelo Capparella is conservation chair of the local John Wesley Powell Audubon Society. He says the current inspection program is inadequate.

“The septic fields are incredibly close to the lake, and many residents really don’t always know how to assess their septic systems.  You need a professional to do that,” Capparella said.

Malfunctioning septic systems could potentially discharge into the lake nitrates and phosphates, by-products of sewage waste. These are the same substances that enter the lake through the runoff of farm fertilizer and can cause algal blooms that result in bad-tasting, foul-smelling water.

At worst, an improper discharge could pollute lake water with disease-bearing bacteria.

WGLT recently had samples of lake water analyzed by Peoria-based PDC Laboratories. The lab found the presence of e coli, a form of fecal coliform, present in both Lake Bloomington and two of its tributaries.

Treatment helps, but...

Hendershott of the health department says the e coli is more than likely from geese, deer and other wildlife rather than humans.  And, he says residents should not be concerned about this bacteria getting into their drinking water. It’s something that is ultimately removed through filtration and disinfection at the Bloomington Water Treatment plant.

“The water treatment plant is designed to provide safe water and takes all those things into consideration when treating for it,” Hendershott said.

Rick Twait is director of Bloomington’s treatment plant. He says the septic systems in place should be able to treat that waste before it gets near the lake, however...

“Their treated effluent can get into Lake Bloomington,” Twait said. “Some of it goes into soil. Some of these systems that are there are sub-surface systems. There are other systems called sand systems where we require a 50-foot rock trench to where much of that effluent does not make it into the lake, but some will.”

Surface vs. subsurface discharge systems

More than half the homes on the lake use what are called surface discharging septic systems. These systems commonly employ a buried sand filter in which partially treated effluent is discharged from a septic tank. It then flows through several layers of rock and passes through a disinfection system where it is treated with chlorine. It is ultimately discharged onto the ground or into a body of water. Surface septic systems can discharge to within fifty feet of the lake. 

The rest of the homes use sub-surface septic systems which discharge into soil. In those systems, effluent from a septic tank is discharged into a rock trench several hundred square feet long and 12 inches deep for treatment and absorption. These underground filtration trenches can be as close as 25 feet to the lake.

Because there are no regular inspections, homeowners are on an honor system to insure their septic systems are working properly. Many environmentalists like Capparella say the newer, larger homes could strain older systems, causing the unintentional release of nutrient pollutants into the lake.

“One of the issues that came up during the study of the impairment of the lake through nutrients is that sceptic systems have to be taken into account as well,” Capparella said. “We can’t put all the burden on farmers to deal with this if we are unwilling to deal with other potential sources of nutrients.”

Capparella says this is the main reason why housing development has been prohibited along Lake Evergreen, another source of drinking water for Bloomington.

Since 2009, seventeen homes along Lake Bloomington have either been rebuilt or undergone major renovation, according to city records.  

Bedrooms count

Homeowners have a loophole in how they can upsize their home without having to make any adjustments to their existing septic system. That’s because the size of the septic tank is tied to the number of bedrooms in the home. If the renovation doesn’t include any additional bedrooms, there is no requirement to increase the capacity of the septic system.

Hendershott of the health department says an increase in square footage doesn’t necessarily mean more people will be living in the home and adding to its output of waste.

“Certainly where you could have 20 people comfortably at a party you could now have 50, but you’re not doing that on a day to day basis and so when you spread that usage over time, it’s not that big of an increase,” Hendershott said.

State septic code updated

Two years ago, the state code for private septic systems was changed. The code now requires systems put in place after January 1, 2014 to be inspected after three years, and then every five years subsequently.

Some of the systems at Lake Bloomington date back to the 1930s. Replacing them would be an expensive and complex proposition for homeowners. The new code requires any homeowner using a surface discharge system for waste to obtain a special pollution elimination permit beforehand. And, these new systems would be prohibited from discharging any amount of nitrates or phosphorus into the soil near the lake.

“They could discharge water as long as it’s almost pure water and the discharge would be regulated by the Illinois EPA,” Hendershott said. “To get into something like that is going to be very, very expensive.”

Hendershott said replacing an older system could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000, depending on the type of system and the size of the home. An added problem is that some of the properties where homes have been upsized have run out of ground space limiting solutions for surface discharge.

 “The most significant thing people need to be aware of is that they need to maintain their septic system, have it checked at least every three years, four or five years, have it pumped out as needed,” Hendershott said.

Are homeowners likely to do that?

Septic homework for homeowners

Sociologist Joan Brehm of Illinois State University, surveyed residents along Lake Bloomington as part of a recent study on public attitudes about water. About 87 percent of those who responded said they have never experienced any problem with their system.

Judy Valente: Did you believe that? Brehm: “Not so much. This is self-reported data so we have to use a little caution with that.”

About five percent who answered the survey said they didn’t even know if they have a septic system.

“That’s a little unnerving,” Brehm said. “It does tell us people don’t necessarily see them as a problem which may or may not be a good thing. It can be out of sight out of mind. But sceptics are certainly a significant vector of pollutants into water if not properly maintained.”

Brehm says more public education might go a long way.

“Septic systems are harder issues to address,” she said. “They make people uncomfortable and it’s going to require working with local officials and policy organizations to educate people as to why maintenance is a really valuable investment in their future. So spending a little bit of money each year to have the system checked and properly maintained can save you thousands of dollars down the road.”

And there is another reason for lake dwellers to be vigilant.

“They see the direct affect in the summer when there is significant algae blooms and it’s not safe to swim in the lake,” Brehm added. “That’s an impact on their life, so another incentive to make them want to keep the water safe and health is that they live on that water.”

Extending public sewage option

Hendershott of the health department said county officials are also discussing the possibility of extending public sewage service out to homes on the lake either through the city of Bloomington or one of the other nearby communities like, Hudson. Another possibility would be to hook up a clusters of homes to a system capable of serving multiple residences at once.

Hendershott said that it could take years to get a project like that approved, let alone built.

So for now, activists like Brad Norris of the EverBloom group will keep watching over Lake Bloomington.

“It is near and dear to my heart,” Norris said. “You know, to protect what you’ve got for the next generation and selfishly for myself to enjoy.”

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner Q&A

Tari Renner
Credit City of Bloomington

The mayor of Bloomington agrees something needs to be done about the large septic systems on the newer and remodeled homes at Lake Bloomington. Tari Renner said clusters could provide a partial solution, and more aggressive monitoring of systems could be done to ensure the systems don't fail.

"The main means by which we're not held hostage to droughts and other problems like that is to tap into the Mahomet Aquifer as Normal has done," he said.

Renner said that can't be done within the current city limits. He says agreements would most likely have to be worked out with some of the townships in the western part of McLean County.

Listen to the interview