Buoy marking one sewer outfall in the Pawcatuck River (Credit: Jamie Vaudrey)

Old Saybrook Faces Tough Choices on Septic System Pollution

in Old Saybrook

OLD SAYBROOK — More than 60 percent of the nitrogen load flowing from the Oyster River into Indian Harbor off of Old Saybrook is from septic systems, according to a study by Marine Scientist Jamie Vaudrey from the University of Connecticut. Part of the problem is that the soil in Old Saybrook is poorly suited for filtering nitrogen. There also simply isn’t enough of it to provide sufficient buffering.

“The sandier the soil the less nitrogen is removed,” said Jamie Vaudrey, a professor of Marine Sciences at UConn who studies nitrogen loading in Long Island Sound.

In Old Saybrook, the problem is compounded by a high water table that leaves very little soil to act as a buffer between wastewater and water flowing directly into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.

Vaudrey’s study identified the problem that septic systems are causing in the sound, especially for towns like Old Saybrook. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is now working to determine what to do about it. Whether that means upgrading septic systems or connecting more area residences to sewers has yet to be determined.

“In order to take action, we need to be more confident in where those investments will have the biggest bang for our buck,” says Philip Trowbridge, Assistant Division Director at DEEP. “In the last couple of years we’ve been working on second generation strategies. We have to keep working to reduce nitrogen loads in embayments mainly from storm water runoff and septic systems.”

Currently, DEEP is in the second year of what they estimate will be a four-year, EPA-funded study to determine where the investments should be made. Last year DEEP received $160,000 for the study. This year DEEP received an additional $100,000. This work is augmenting and verifying the data that Vaudrey has already collected.

“We want to be sure that the investments we make, make a difference,” Trowbridge said. “We all wish it could go faster, but we urge people to be patient because we only have so many arrows we can shoot here. It’s better to measure twice and cut once.”

“Overall we have lowered the load of nitrogen into the sound since efforts began in the 70s.

We’ve cut our loading dramatically from these large point sources,” said Trowbridge. “Previously 55 percent of nitrogen load was from wastewater treatment plants, now that is down to just 30 percent or lower.”

The next step is tackling water pollution from septic systems.

The options are basically to upgrade septic systems – replacing current systems or using newer technology — or extending sewer lines to neighborhoods where septic proves to be untenable.

The state typically does not have control over septic systems, which in most cases involve private property and private residences, so officials at DEEP expect to work closely with towns and cities to determine an approach that makes the most sense for each community.

“There is no magic bullet here,” said Stephen Mongillo the program manager for Old Saybrook’s Water Pollution Control Authority (OSWPCA). “We need to keep waste water from entering our environment, but there is a huge political and financial component to it.”

In the case of Old Saybrook, not only is the soil notably sandy and the water level unusually high, but in 2009 the state took the town to court over the implementation of a wastewater treatment facility based on the Connecticut River in the town. Old Saybrook and the state compromised on a referendum to the residents – they could vote for the construction of a wastewater treatment facility at a cost of $72 million or to upgrade residential septic systems within the 15 designated areas for $43 million.

Voters chose the septic system upgrade, and for the last ten years the town has been working to comply with the court order. Today, there are 1,100 systems upgraded and 800 to go, Mongillo said. So far each system upgrade has cost each resident between $10,000 and $20,000. 50 percent of the cost has been paid by the town and state.

The last 800 may be prove more difficult.

“They are mostly right on the water and in difficult areas so the cost begins to escalate to a point where you have to think about other options,” Mongillo said, “like a treatment facility”– a solution the town rejected 10 years ago.

“You’re starting to get an idea for how this project has gone,” Mongillo laughed. “None of it happened how it was supposed to, it’s like the quote, life is what happens while you’re planning for something else.”

The original court order mandates advanced septic systems that reduce nitrogen outflows, but those systems aren’t even approved in the state yet.  

Given the threat of sea level rise and groundwater, Old Saybrook along with DEEP are still trying to determine whether upgrading septic systems will be enough to keep water in the sound clean. As with DEEP’s overall study, it will take time for the town to decide what makes the most sense.

“This is a real important issue for the residents of the state,” Mongillo said. “Water and waste water are essential as an infrastructure component.”