The Weekly Newspaper serving the citizens of Morenci, Mich., Fayette, Ohio, and surrounding areas.

  • Snow.2
    FIRST SNOW—Heavy, wet flakes piled deep on tree branches—and windshields—as the area received its first significant snowfall of the season. “Usually it begins with a dusting or two,” said George Isobar, Morenci’s observer for the National Weather Service, “but this time it came with a vengeance.” By the end of the day Saturday, a little over four inches of snow was on the ground. Now comes the thaw with temperatures in the 40s and 50s for three days.
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    SKEWERS, gumdrops, and marshmallows are all that’s needed to create interesting shapes and designs for Layla McDowell Saturday at Stair District Library’s “Sculptamania!” Open House. The program featuring design games and materials is one part of a larger project funded by a $7,500 Curiosity Creates grant from Disney and the American Library Association. Additional photos are on page 7.
    Morenci marching band members took to the field Friday night dressed for Halloween during the Bulldog’s first playoff game. Morenci fans had a bit of a scare until the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs scored 30 points to leave Lenawee Christian School behind. Whiteford visits Morenci this Friday for the district championship game. From the left is Clayton Borton, Morgan Merillat and James O’Brien.
    DNA PUZZLE—Mitchell Storrs and Wyatt Mohr tackle a puzzle representing the structure of DNA. There’s only one correct way for all the pieces to fit. It’s one of the new materials that can be used in both biology and chemistry classes, said teacher Loretta Cox.
  • Front.tar.wide
    A TRAFFIC control worker stands in the middle of Morenci’s Main Street Tuesday morning, waiting for the next flow of vehicles to be let through from the west. The dusty gravel surface was sealed with a layer of tar, leaving only the application of paint for new striping. The project was completed in conjunction with county road commission work west of Morenci.
  • Front.pull
    JUNIORS Jazmin Smith and Trevor Corkle struggle against a team from the sophomore class Friday during the annual tug of war at the Homecoming Games pep rally. Even the seniors struggled against the sophomores who won the competition. At the main course of the day, the Bulldog football team struggled against Whiteford in a homecoming loss.
    YOUNG soccer players surived a chilly morning Saturday in Morenci’s PTO league. From the left is Emma Cordts, Wayne Corser, Carter and Levi Seitz, Briella York and Drew Joughin. Two more weeks of soccer remain for this season.
  • Front.ropes
    BOWEN BAUMGARTNER of Morenci makes his way across a rope bridge constructed by the Tecumseh Boy Scout troop Sunday at Lake Hudson Recreation Area. The bridge was one of many challenges, displays and games set up for the annual Youth Jamboree by the Michigan DNR. Additional photos on are the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.homecoming Court
    One of four senior candidates will be crowned the fall homecoming queen during half-time of this week’s Morenci-Whiteford football game. In the back row (left to right) is exchange student Kinga Vidor (her escort will be Caylob Alcock), seniors Alli VanBrandt (escorted by Sam Cool), Larissa Elliott (escorted by Clayton Borton), Samantha Wright (escorted by JJ Elarton) and Justis McCowan (escorted by Austin Gilson), and exchange student Rebecca Rosenberger (escorted by Garrett Smith). Front row freshman court member Allie Kaiser (escorted by Anthony Thomas), sophomore Marlee Blaker (escorted by Nate Elarton) and junior Cheyenne Stone (escorted by Dominick Sell).
  • Front.park.lights
    GETTING READY—Jerad Gleckler pounds nails to secure a string of holiday lights on the side of the Wakefield Park concession stand while other members of the Volunteer Club and others hold them in place. The volunteers showed up Sunday afternoon to string lights at the park. The decorating project will continue this Sunday. Denise Walsh is in charge of the effort this year.
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The Septic Factor...

Written by David Green.


There’s no question in Scott Miller’s mind that water quality problems are abundant in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

As a staff member of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) surface water division, Miller is often called out to look at a contaminated drain, runoff from a field or a questionable discharge from an industrial site.

The vexing question Miller often faces is determining the source of the problem.

His office has confirmed 19 illegal discharges from area dairies in recent years, and in each of those situations the cause was clear. But it’s not always that easy.

Two weeks ago, for example, Miller responded to a call about foul water in the Rice Lake Drain at Haley Road. The site is downstream from the Haley Road Dairy. A lab report indicated E. coli bacteria levels so high they were given the status of “too numerous to count.”

“The water was pretty impacted,” Miller said. “It was really black. There are some problems out there, but at this point, we don’t know what the problem is.”

The condition of the water made Miller suspect that a septic system could be part of the puzzle. He spoke briefly with the owner of the dairy, who hadn’t applied manure to his field for several weeks.

“He has a tile that originates near the facility, but he’s not the only one draining into the Rice Lake Drain,” Miller said.

Similarly, foul water was observed in the Rooney Drain at Bear Creek—also near the large Hartland Farms dairy. Discharges from manure applications have caused problems before in the area, but this time Miller wasn’t  entirely sure. It’s obvious there’s a problem—with E. coli too high to count and dissolved oxygen levels too low to support aquatic life—but in this situation, too, Miller isn’t ready to jump at the obvious conclusion.

“Again, I have concerns we may have some septic system failure,” he said.

Septic problems

In 1990, about 30 percent of Michigan homes were served by on-site septic systems, according to Lenawee County Environmental Health Director Mike Kight. Of those approximately 1.2 million systems, the DEQ suggests that at any one time, up to 10 percent of those systems are failing.

Kight doesn’t see the issue as a huge problem, but he knows faulty systems exist, particularly in older rural homes. No inspection of the septic system is required when a house is sold, he said, and records of how a system was installed don’t exist.

“If you take an isolated farming area with old homes, you might see more,” Kight said.

Miller thinks there’s more to it than that.

“I think it’s a much larger problem than people want to admit,” he said. “Slowly but surely I think we’re moving in that direction [of tackling the problem].”

He expects the DEQ will work with local health departments for corrective action.

Over the summer a problem was spotted near VanderHoff II dairy on US-127. A discharge from the farm was suspected, but in this case it turned out to be the septic system at the older home where the farm owner lives.

That home owner was like a lot of others: He didn’t know where his septic line emptied and he didn’t know there was a problem.

Sometimes a septic problem is obvious, such as the Lime Lake area in Hillsdale County.

“We know for a fact that Prattville Drain is contaminated with human pathogens,” Miller said.

The drain empties into Lime Lake, and that body of water already has its own problem stemming from the septic fields of the homes around the lake. Add to that some confirmed discharges from an area dairy farm and the problem is multiplied.

Steve Todd of the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency talks about how sewage disposal practices have changed over the years.

“Now we find it appalling,” he said, talking about situations such as in Prattville where raw sewage flows into a drain. “Back then, it was an improvement from the back yard outhouse. Now we need to go a step forward.”

Sewer projects are planned for both Prattville and Lime Lake. That should take away the human element, Todd said, except for the fertilizer and pesticides many lake owners use to maintain a well-manicured lawn.

Todd says his office addresses septic problems when they’re discovered. A neighbor might spot a discharge from a pipe. People in a canoe will occasionally find an outlet along a river. Someone hiking along a stream comes across a drain with water that smells like sewage.

“When a new well goes in, we ask about the septic system to keep the two separate,” Todd said, “but we don’t routinely drive down roads.”

That chore is handled by another group.

Volunteer monitors

Maintaining water quality requires an exhaustive effort and there’s not enough DEQ personnel to get it all done.

“As an agency, we’re very understaffed,” Miller said.

In addition to his own department’s efforts, Miller relies on data provided by three other sources. The DEQ is looking at 10 sites in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties through a special program studying impaired water bodies.

A second set of data comes through a Lime Creek watershed study coordinated by the Hillsdale County Community Action Agency.

The group that drives the roads looking for problems is a volunteer effort. Measurements of the oxygen level in streams are taken and samples are collected for E. coli analysis by a laboratory in Jackson.

The data collected by the volunteers—in conjunction with information obtained by state environmental agencies—helps form an important baseline of information to evaluate future water quality conditions, Miller said. It’s also served to identify several problem sites.

“The data has been valuable to us,” he said. “In fact, it has led to the identification of three illegal discharges, two from farms and one yet to be determined.”

Complaints filed by the group prior to their data collection have led to numerous other documented illegal discharges, he added.

“Their data is an important screening tool to evaluate water quality and move forward to resolve potential problems,” Miller said.

Todd agrees.

“It’s good there are organizations concerned about the environment,” he said. “Everybody’s land use can have an impact in the watershed.”

That group could also lend a hand in solving the dilemma that Miller sometimes faces, because knowing the nature of the contamination is essential to creating a solution.

When E. coli bacteria is detected in a stream or lake, there’s often no way of knowing whether it originated from a residential septic system or from an agricultural tile—except by turning to an expensive DNA analysis.

The “impaired water body” study that got underway in the spring will take a look at the DNA of pathogens in the Lime Lake area. In addition, the volunteer group has some funding set aside from a Sierra Club grant for DNA testing. They’ll take action once appropriate sites are determined.

They’re expecting to find much a much higher percentage of contamination from cattle than from humans.

“Failed septic systems are a concern,” said Janet Kauffman, a Hudson area resident who collects weekly samples, “but if you look at the big picture, they’re a small part of the current problem. The amount of untreated animal waste going on fields here is equivalent to a city of 300,000. Rural septics are few and far between.”

For example, she said, the population of Medina, Hudson and Wright townships combined in about 3,600 people. Even if half of those septic systems fail—far more than the estimated levels—the bacteria problem from those would represent only a small fraction of what is being observed in area waterways.

“We’ll certainly know more when we begin DNA sampling,” she said.

Miller will welcome that information, also.

“If we can find a problem and track it back to the source, it’s pretty straightforward,” Miller said.

All too often, that’s not the case, and the perplexing question—is it septic or is it agricultural—sometimes remains.

    – Sept. 25, 2002 

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