The story of Stella Bowles and her work to upgrade wastewater systems along a Nova Scotia river should inspire our industry.
With kids like Stella Bowles on the case, the future of the onsite industry will be in very good hands.
This one-girl environmental wrecking crew is single-handedly pushing Nova Scotia provincial officials to eliminate illegal straight pipes that dump waste directly into waterways including the LaHave River where she lives.
At age 13, Stella has twice won Nova Scotia’s science fair for her age group and just represented the province at a Canada-wide science fair in Regina, Saskatchewan. She’s started a water quality monitoring program from her front yard on the LaHave River and the results of her fecal bacteria testing have caught the attention of local and regional government officials, going all the way up to Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
WHEN THEIR SYSTEM FAILED
After reading about Stella’s efforts recently, I had to give a call to the plucky teen to find out how she became so interested in the state of decentralized wastewater. On the phone from their home on the river, Stella and her mom, Andrea Conrad, explained that her passion for clean water started with the family’s septic system.
When their leachfield failed a few years ago, a septic designer explained how the family would have to replace the very old septic system. Now that their system was reported as failed, they would have three months to replace it. But, the way things go, there was nobody to check if they installed the new system and, by the way, neighbors were continuing to use straight pipes to convey waste directly in the river, which has been illegal since 1974.
Andrea was mystified that anyone would knowingly continue to send pollution into the river. The family hired an installer for the new system right away, borrowing money to pay for it.
“It’s part of being a responsible homeowner,” Andrea explained. “I could never live in a house where I was flushing my toilet into the river. I’m living in a house my grandfather built 70 years ago and when he put in a bathroom, he installed a septic system.”
Grandpa was a commercial fisherman and he understood that clean water was necessary for his business to flourish.
The new septic system was installed and working fine, but Stella never forgot listening in on the conversation with the engineer talking about the straight pipes. She was deeply troubled with the image of homeowners, in essence, relieving themselves directly into the river.
FIGHT THE PIPES
“I was really disgusted. It blew my mind that people could actually put their sewage in the river,” she recalled. She thought about how kids could no longer swim in the river and pets that drank from it became sick. She was determined to do something about the straight pipes and set off to work.
Stella started sampling water up and down the river for fecal bacteria levels, setting up a lab in her basement and publishing findings and other information on her science project website, earlgrey5.wixsite.com/stellab/more-testing. The results showed that at many times and in many locations the water in the river is not safe for swimming or even touching.
Long-term testing by Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation has backed up Stella’s testing results. The group has been monitoring the river for a decade, and reports that the waterway often exceeds Health Canada guidelines for recreational water quality, causing substantial health risks with swimming in the water.
Stella has given many presentations to government, environmental and student groups. She has become something of a media celebrity in Canada, giving interviews about her ongoing project. Her mom laughed about Stella spending spring break from school this year touring a wastewater treatment plant.
Stella was even introduced to Prime Minister Trudeau and had a short chat with him about the environment. “I gave him a card with my information. It was pretty cool and I’d love to sit down and talk with him,” said the unintimidated young lady.
A LONG ROAD
There are an estimated 600 straight pipes dumping into the LaHave River in the local stretch where Stella lives. This part of the river that empties into the ocean is well populated with residential and commercial lots, with about 300 feet of frontage and the area served mainly by decentralized wastewater systems as opposed to municipal sewers. Stella reports that she can sometimes smell the human waste at low tide and has found used toilet paper during her testing.
She is advocating for the provincial government to close loopholes that allow straight pipes to continue to flow. She’s asked legislators to force upgrades to approved septic systems when properties are sold.
Local officials are on board, and a grant and loan program has been approved to help homeowners pay for the upgrades. But the provincial government is needed for enforcement and officials have yet to get on board. A letter to Stella from Nova Scotia Environment said legislation to eliminate straight pipes “was not supported due to the potential impact on the sale of properties.”
Stella countered that the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors gave her an award for her work. “They want a cleaner environment and good working septics for the houses they sell. I think home prices will go up if the water is cleaner,” she replied.
A homeowner, Wayne Mulock, speaks about the plight of the LaHave River in a video on Stella’s webpage, echoing her message. “We’ve come so far in regards to advancements in the environment that I feel today the technology is such that there is no reason we should be polluting the river and expecting people to swim in fecal bacteria,” he said.
Stella and some of her enlightened neighbors understand the important role onsite installers can play in cleaning up their river. They know our industry has the tools to make their waterways safe again for recreational activity, and they are frustrated that the solution to this wastewater crisis is within their grasp, but still eludes them.
Stella’s story should give us all great hope for the future. Her hard work — combined with the efforts of scientists, environmentalists and onsite industry leaders — will eventually tip the scales and force the dismantling of straight pipes on the LaHave and other threatened waterways.
More good news is that Stella is hoping to pursue a career in science, and maybe politics. I put in a plug for the wastewater industry, knowing it will remain instrumental in improving the environment and smart development of our land for many years to come. For now, she remains focused on the problem in her own backyard.
“I’m going to keep going until the straight pipes are gone,” Stella said. “I definitely want to be able to swim in the river. Hopefully it will be clean enough by the time I have children, because it’s a beautiful spot.”