CARLISLE — Sewage no longer fouls Lake Carnico in Nicholas County, thanks to an environmentally friendly project that naturally treats wastewater from nearby households.
But it took 22 years, persistence and patience for local officials to piece together funding, and to have the treatment system designed and built for a total cost of more than $2.7 million, said Denny Gallagher, chairman of the sanitation district that oversees the system's maintenance.
"When I set out to do something, I like it to be done," Gallagher said.
Lake Carnico is a jewel in Nicholas County, a rural county of 7,000 people about an hour north of Lexington. Finished in 1962, the 114-acre reservoir was created by damming several unnamed tributaries to Brushy Fork Creek. Its largemouth bass, flathead catfish, bluegill and crappie attract fishermen from around the region.
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Initially people erected weekend fishing cabins around the lake, but as time went on, some 103 single-family houses were built near its five miles of shoreline. Home prices around the lake range from $175,000 to $230,000 or more in a county where the average price for a house is closer to $110,000 to $125,000, said county Property Valuation Administrator Michelle Knapke McDonald. When they're for sale, houses around the lake tend to spend less time on the market than those elsewhere in the county.
For years, homes around the lake were served by aging, failing septic systems or by holding tanks that could be pumped out periodically to dispose the sewage elsewhere.
Trouble was, untreated sewage was finding its way into the lake, and something had to be done to stop it.
"It wasn't polluted, but it wasn't crystal clear, either," Gallagher said of the lake.
Hooking on to Carlisle's sewer system would have been prohibitively expensive. So Nicholas County Sanitation District No. 2 found an alternative: rather than send the sewage to the city, it is treated on site.
That is done with something called a "recirculating gravel filter," said Joe Pavoni, an engineer with GRW, a consulting engineering firm in Louisville.
Wastewater moves from each house into a septic tank where solids settle out. Liquid effluent is pumped a half-mile to a central treatment area. A primary feature of this area is a 95- by 50-foot basin filled with gravel. Here, the water is pumped repeatedly through the gravel, where bacteria on the rocks eat the microscopic waste in the water.
The water is recirculated over the gravel so that, "on average, every drop of water gets treated five times," Pavoni said.
From there, the water goes through ultraviolet light for further disinfection of pathogens. The water is then pumped and released sequentially into a series of zones that cover four acres of a grassy ridge. Some 87,000 feet of drip tubing eight inches below the ground surface injects or "doses" the treated water into the soil. Organisms in the soil further clean the water.
Because the native soil around the lake was not ideal for the absorption of water, nearly 900 dump truck loads of a more suitable dirt was brought to the treatment site from Millersburg in neighboring Bourbon County.
That subsurface disposal means no water is discharged into the lake.
No discharge means no approval was needed from the state Division of Water, although the state Department for Public Health gave its nod. The local health department monitors the system to ensure that it is operated and maintained correctly.
These kinds of recirculation systems have been around since the 1970s. A few exist in Fayette County, and a small example treats the sewage of the Dairy Queen on U.S. 60 between Lexington and Versailles. Camp Wa-Kon-Da-Ho near Liberty in Casey County uses peat moss rather than gravel.
"You don't see many projects like this that are professionally designed and constructed," Pavoni said. "Most of them are done by developers who are building brand new subdivisions."
Gallagher, a plumber by trade, got to know state legislators through Jeff Randolph, a magistrate on Nicholas County Fiscal Court. Randolph jokes that he was Gallagher's "driver" on trips to Frankfort.
"Me and Denny have been friends for a long time," Randolph said. "I asked him to go to Frankfort with me for a legislator's day for magistrates and commissioners."
Randolph introduced Gallagher to lawmakers who could be enlisted to help secure state grant money for the project — money that was more easily available before the economy went sour.
Thanks to a series of state legislators, the sanitation district secured $1.5 million in grant money. In addition, the state Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee in 2011 approved a $550,000 loan with an interest rate of 2 percent over 20 years. Property owners around the lake also were assessed $4,000 for each house and an additional $500 for each lot they owned. The Nicholas County Development Corp., which owns lots around the lake, also contributed $100,000. No federal money was used.
Today, water users around the lake pay, on average, $70 a month, Gallagher said. That sounds like a lot, but those with holding tanks were spending $160 every four to six weeks to have those tanks pumped.
The system is designed to provide service for up to 165 homes, so that opens the door to more construction in the area, said Nicholas County Judge-Executive Mike Pryor. "There's a lot of land there that now has the potential to be developed," he said.
Gallagher said growth would be positive, but he acknowledged that not everybody shares his optimism.
"A lot of people don't like that in this county," he said. "They like it to be the same way it is, forever. But it's going to grow."
People outside the county are taking notice of the Lake Carnico project. The sewage system has drawn the attention of people in Eastern Kentucky who wished to see if it might have an application in the mountains.
GRW nominated the project for an award, but it did not make the final cut. Nevertheless, Pavoni said the project was noteworthy for any number of reasons, but he highlighted one in particular.
"It's one of the greenest projects you can have," he said.
This story was corrected to note the estimated population of Nicholas County is 7,000.