System simple for keeping water clean; getting the money was complicated

Poll after poll shows that people trust government more the closer it gets to them. While faith in Congress has reached all-time lows, most people have good feelings about how their city is run.

To understand this, you need look no farther than Greg Kocher's story last week about Nicholas County Sanitation District No. 2.

That district — about as local as government gets — has, under chairman Denny Gallagher, persisted over 22 years in conceiving, designing and tracking down the money for a project to keep Lake Carnico's water clean. The innovative system uses nature as the primary cleansing agent, rather than a physical plant, equipment and chemicals. It's also much less expensive to operate than a traditional system.

Lake Carnico was formed in 1962 by damming several tributaries of Brushy Fork Creek, creating a 114-acre lake with abundant fishing, surrounded by a nature preserve. Much of the five miles of shoreline is open to the public, although some is for the private use of the 103 homes built around it. Miles from the nearest municipal treatment system, sewage generated by the homes and other activity around the lake had been handled by septic systems or holding tanks that had to be pumped. It was an unsatisfactory situation. It cost $160 every time a tank was pumped, and the aging septic systems weren't keeping all the sewage out of the lake.

So, one of the principle recreation locales for tourists and residents, and the driver for some of the highest property values in the county of 7,000, was slowly but surely becoming less and less attractive. "It wasn't polluted, but it wasn't crystal clear, either," Gallagher told Kocher.

Sanitation District No. 2, led by Gallagher, worked with local officials, state representatives and others to put together the $2.7 million it took to design and construct a system to allow people to live and recreate around Lake Carnico while keeping raw sewage out of it. By all accounts it took remarkable persistence, including countless trips to Frankfort, to piece together the funding and get the necessary approvals.

Joe Pavoni, lead engineer on the project for GRW Engineering, said centralized wastewater systems, even small ones, typically involve "a large plant, aerators, mechanical equipment, large pumps." But the recirculating gravel filter at Lake Carnico instead pumps wastewater a short distance from holding tanks near each residence to a huge basin filled with gravel that contains bacteria that eat the microscopic waste in the water. It's pumped through three times then flows through ultraviolet light to remove more pathogens and finally is fed through 87,000 feet of drip tubing into a series of zones of soil. The cleaned water seeps through the soil, which cleans it even further. So, the heavy lifting in the system is done by gravel and soil with relatively small pumps operating occasionally to move the water.

"There's not a ton of stuff going on," Pavoni said, which means the cost of operating and maintaining the system is marginal compared to traditional systems.

While the $2.7 million price tag for so few users might seem steep, Pavoni pointed out that it's much less costly than cleaning up the lake and groundwater if it became polluted.

Chalk up another victory for the local team.