WHITLEY COUNTY — Having a glass of clean well water in Whitley County is something many may be taking for granted — the luxury of safe water could be at risk if E. coli continues to flow through local ditches at what health officials call “alarming rates.”
Though difficult to quantify the number of people and pets who have may been sickened due to contaminated waterways, Scott Wagner, of the Whitley County Health Department, said “I’m sure the number would be shocking.”
Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is a species of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and is expelled in feces. With failing septic systems in every township in Whitley County, Wagner is finding the bacteria in local waterways, such as ditches, streams and rivers.
He has not found any water wells or drinking water with positive fecal contamination, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
“There’s always the potential, especially when you have communities and subdivisions with high E. coli closing in their road-side ditches,” Wagner said.
Wagner has spoken publicly about his support for the county’s Regional Sewer District, which was chartered by the state last year and has begun planning sewer projects for areas in the county with failing septic systems.
“A regional sewer district is the best and most practical way to deliver sanitary sewer to areas of concern,” Wagner said.
Many residents, however, have pushed back against the project — against the costs and denying issues with their septic systems, citing problems with local farms instead.
“Every township in Whitley County has at least one area, if not many areas that have a condensed septic system problem,” Wagner said. “Not to mention individual property in the hundreds, if not thousands, throughout the county.”
In the last 10 years, Wagner has encountered one confined feeding operation with runoff of solid manure that was spread on frozen ground in 2008. He acknowledges that some farms, non-CFO, have contaminated waterways because they are not restricted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management like CFOs are.
“Overall, contamination from failing and illegal septic systems are the greatest concern for water contamination,” Wagner said.
Pushback from some communities, such as Stable Acres subdivision in Jefferson Township, has caused the RSD to withdraw its proposed project in the area.
“The greatest cause for concern are individuals or communities of people who have no concern for their pollution of the environment and the health risks they are giving their neighbors,” Wagner said. “They simply don’t care if it is going to cost them money.”
Some parts of the county have sewage draining directly into ditches, others have failing septics that can backup into their homes or discharge human feces into neighbors backyards. Wagner is ready to stand up for the health of the community.
“If the sewer board does not sewer areas of contamination, the health department will enforce the law to the letter of the law,” Wagner said. “Inspections will occur, orders will be given, and possible fines and legal action for non-compliance.”
Wagner understood that in the past there was not a viable, cost-effective way to address sewage issues in parts of the county over the previous years, but the establishment of the RSD has changed the game.
“For too long these areas throughout the county have been neglected,” Wagner said. “Now there is a cost effective way to solve these septic system problems. If these areas reject sanitary sewer, then enforcement action will be taken.”
In light of recent discussions, Wagner suggests that potential homebuyers do their due diligence when it comes to purchasing a home with a septic system, utilizing a qualified inspector.
“Contact the health department to see if there are any concerns for a property or neighborhood,” Wagner said.
If you are selling a home in Whitley County and you do not have a septic on file, be prepared to have a new septic system installed before you can sell your home.
“These are hard words to swallow and my be difficult to read, but these are the laws that the health department must follow,” Wagner said.
In a meeting last year, Wagner did note that none of Whitley County’s recreational, public lakes showed E. Coli contamination, which IDEM has a standard of 235 bacteria per 100 mL for a one-time sample, or 125 per 100 mL for at least five samples in 30 days. A septic tank, however, can produce as much as 10,000 E coli per 100 mL.
Blue and Eel rivers have been considered “impaired,” with biotic communities, E. Coli, dissolved oxygen and high nutrient levels.
The health department maintains records of septic systems installed in Whitley County since 1957.
“The Whitley County Health Department wholeheartedly supports the efforts of the Whitley County Sewer District,” Wagner said. “Sanitary sewer in current and proposed future housing developments allows for protection of the environment and helps to reduce sprawl that unnecessarily wastes land.”