Water quality problems continue to vex officials

Some progress made but high E. coli levels near state park has county urging homeowners to test septic systems

A WATER QUALITY sign near the Lake Michigan beach at the foot of Highway D in the Town of Belgium indicated there were no problems last week but high levels of E. coli have been detected at the beach, which is just north of Harrington Beach State Park. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

While the cleanliness of water flowing into Lake Michigan from the Harrington Beach State Park area continues to be a concern, improvement moves at a slow pace, officials say.

Water samples showing high levels of bovine and human E. coli — in some cases beyond the realm of the tests — led the Ozaukee County Land and Water Management Department to send a letter and brochure last month to 21 homeowners in the Town of Belgium, encouraging them to complete an evaluation of their old septic systems.

The department used a $38,500 grant from the Fund for Lake Michigan to conduct testing at 27 points in the watershed last year. Weekly results showed “super high levels of E. coli,” and higher levels after receiving a half inch or more of rain, department director Andy Holschbach said at the Belgium Town Board meeting July 2.

Since Holschbach’s last update in October, eight of the 29 old septic systems have been updated. Some of those may have been due to property sales and others from continued encouragement from officials, he said.

“It’s slow. I can’t knock on somebody’s door and say you need to do this or you need to do that unless we for sure know there’s truly an issue,” Holschbach said.

Town Chairman Tom Winker noted that progress is at least being made.

“I realize that’s a slow process but it’s eight more than we started the year with,” he said.

While Holschbach said his department has done minimal testing, the Ozaukee Washington Public Health Department has been testing water at least twice per week at five different sites in the watershed for a decade. Seven years ago, it found extremely high levels of E. coli near Cedar Beach Road and Highway D, especially after large amounts of rain. Some of those results were off the charts, department director Kirsten Johnson said.

Of the 21 old septic systems in use, Holschbach said he isn’t sure which ones are faulty.

“Can I tell you they’re not functioning properly for certain? No.”

That would require a dye test, but in October he told the Town Board that attorneys said the one-year water study doesn’t create probable cause to do such a test.

Statewide septic inspections don’t necessarily catch faulty systems either. While required every three years, the tanks don’t need to be drained in that time and the process is missing a key element, Holschbach said.

“They never look at the soil, which tells a lot about the treatment of the waste,” Holschbach said, adding he is working to try to add that requirement.

In addition, a septic system’s baffle could be intact and the water could disappear, but the tank could be hooked up to a field drain tile, he said.

Town resident Bob Burant asked if the county could push the envelope to address old septic systems.

“I think we should all be upheld to the same rules. For many of us, it’s our front yard and we want to protect it. It’s a natural gem out there and we want to make sure it’s taken care of,” he said.

Winker said Holschbach has helped with some low-interest loans for residents to update their septic systems.

Holschbach said he wrote a grant to the Fund for Lake Michigan asking for $6,000 toward updating each old septic system, but didn’t receive it.

Burant and fellow town resident Sally Schuster said voluntary action is unlikely.

“It’s just not going to happen. How many people are going to say, ‘Oh sure, I’ll stick $25,000 into a septic system’ when nobody is making them?” Schuster said. “If their toilet is still flushing, they’re not going to be putting money into a mound system.”

Old, failing septic systems aren’t the only elements contributing to polluted water reaching the lake. Farms are another cause.

Schuster presented photos of a culvert under Silver Beach North Road from January and February that showed several feet of foam that she said “smelled like a manure pit.” A photo from May 30 showed the foam floating across the lake.

Holschbach said he investigated and discovered a farmer spread manure on a frozen field. That farmer is now in the process of trying to store manure so he’s not spreading it on frozen land.

Schuster suggested the town enact some kind of rule to prohibit spreading manure on frozen ground.

“As property owners down there, we can’t continue to just let this go. Our kids can’t even swim in the lake when it’s like this,” she said.

Winker said he doesn’t want to create more laws but rather “work with” farmers. They don’t want runoff either, he said, because their soil loses nutrients.

Many farmers, Holschbach said, are recognizing that manure is fertilizer and are storing it to save it.

Holschbach and Johnson encouraged residents to contact the state Department of Natural Resources when they see waste and runoff. Citizen feedback carries more weight with the DNR than county directors, Johnson said.

“We provide technical assistance and they provide enforcement assistance,” Holschbach said.

Pollution reached a high-enough level to close beaches several times last year, Johnson said. Three closures occurred at Cedar Beach Road and Highway D and two each at the other three testing sites, which was better than in years prior, she said.

Johnson said beach closings are posted on the health department’s Facebook page (m.facebook.com/ph.ozaukee) and Tweeted (@WshOzPH) Thursday and Friday mornings, and they are available on the Wisconsin Beach Health website at www.wibeaches.us.

Holschbach said his department’s one year of testing isn’t enough to completely solve the issue. E. coli, he said, can come from different sources and multiply in water, which provides higher numbers.

Johnson said E. coli grows faster in warm water, which could affect test results.

Winker suggested Holschbach provide an updated report to the board in fall.

“We’ll continue to work as much as we can. Obviously, this is a slow process,” Winker said.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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