So That's Why the Grass Is Greener

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

When Candice Quinn Kelly and her husband bought a house in the farmlands of Charles County, they loved the rural feel and the big, open yard -- especially the small patch of miraculously lush grass in the middle. To Kelly, a Baltimore girl, that odd strip of bright green turf was like having her own little piece of the golf fairway at Pebble Beach.

Then it started getting soggy, which was curious. But they chalked it up to low ground. It wasn't until their toilets stopped flushing one day that they recognized the flourishing greenery for what it was: a spongy marsh of human waste.

"Looking back, it's kind of funny how clueless we were, but, I mean, in the city you just flush," said Kelly, who last year became a county commissioner. "You don't think about where it goes."

As urbanites push ever outward in search of bigger property, better schools and quieter neighborhoods, their inexperience with rural plumbing has led to sometimes disastrous and odiferous results.

Some don't know that their septic tanks have to be pumped every two to five years, maintenance companies say; others don't even realize that their house has a septic system until it's too late.

As a result, county officials from Anne Arundel to Loudoun have organized classes, produced training videos and hand-delivered fliers. They've gone the doom-and-gloom route, laying out visions of flooded basements and nasty backyard ponds. They've tried gentler approaches (bathroom humor, for instance, seems to work well).

Last year, Calvert County offered residents a chance to win weekend getaways, fishing trips and an evening of fine dining if they would have their systems pumped out.

But education alone might not be enough, say some Virginia and Maryland officials, who are talking about requiring that tanks be pumped or inspected.

City vs. Country

When someone flushes a toilet in the city, the wastewater is sent on its way to a treatment plant, where bacteria and pollutants are removed before it is discharged into a waterway.

In rural areas, where homes are farther apart, the waste from most toilets is routed to individual underground tanks, where solids are broken down by bacteria and liquids percolate through soil and into the groundwater.

Over time, however, solids accumulate in the tank and need to be pumped out, a process that costs about $200. If left unpumped, solids can clog the system and cause it to fail. A malfunctioning system releases raw sewage that can contaminate well water, pollute waterways and spread disease.

"It's a big frustration," said Tom Miller, an agricultural extension agent who has spent 15 years teaching Maryland residents about septic systems. "This state has half a million households on septic, and many have no idea how to use it."

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