Flushing Into the Future

It’s easy to spread the word about proper use of septic systems
Flushing Into the Future
Sharon Partridge, Program Manager, Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District

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For the last 10 years, Sharon Partridge has been traveling across Indiana and neighboring states to educate people about the proper use of their septic systems. It’s part of her job doing projects to develop watershed management plans, which includes education and outreach to help the public understand how to protect natural resources in their communities.

Partnering with local health departments, Partridge began offering the 90-minute workshops while working in southern Indiana, but is now in northern Indiana where she is the program manager for the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District.

What prompted you to start offering the workshops?
When we do our research into what’s negatively affecting water quality, failing septics always come up. The typical homeowner may know they have a septic system, but they don’t know how it works, how to maintain it or the signs of failure. So that is what the workshop is about.

We go through how it’s supposed to work, how to maintain it and what to do if you’re having trouble with your system. And we provide materials people can take with them to learn more, including the DVD “Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind."

What’s the reaction?
It’s good. I judge educational events on the number of questions that participants ask, which are typically many. This shows that the event raised awareness that will hopefully lead to behavioral changes. One question that always comes up is about using additives. The sanitarians always say no, so that surprises a lot of people. People ask about what type of toilet paper to use, and we do talk about not flushing wet wipes. We also discuss garbage disposals and keeping oil and grease out of the system. Generally speaking, if you have a septic system, you shouldn’t use a garbage disposal, but of course it happens. Within reason, it should be OK.

There is a lack of knowledge. I’ll hear people say they don’t know where their system's riser is or how to find it. That’s kind of surprising that a homeowner wouldn’t know. Sometimes we do a pre- and post-workshop survey to help us gauge what people learned and to see if there is something they’d like to learn more about.

We always talk a little bit about cost, and that’s a real eye opener. One thing people always ask is if there is financial assistance available for a homeowner to repair or replace a system. Typically, the answer is no, but there have been a few such grants available over the years.

How many people normally attend a workshop?
Anywhere from about six to … I think the most we ever had was 20. Hey, whoever comes, we’re doing a workshop. We don’t mind if it’s just a handful, we want to educate homeowners. That’s why we move them around. We know a person isn’t going to drive 50 miles for something like this, but they will drive 10 miles.

It is kind of a weird topic, “Come spend your Saturday morning learning about septics.” So I like to make the workshops fun. We have them at places like local libraries or park pavilions and have door prizes. One thing that brings people in is if we can get a pumper to offer a coupon for $50 off or something like that.

How often are workshops offered?
I’ve done eight in the last two years. There’s no set schedule, we just offer them periodically around the watersheds. We’re just wrapping up work on the Upper St. Joseph watershed project, which covers northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and northern Ohio. So we offered them in all three states. We’ve also been working in the Upper Maumee Watershed in eastern Indiana and western Ohio so we’ve had workshops there, as well.

The Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District is pretty well known for partnering with other agencies and organizations, such as the not-for-profit St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative. We help them administer grants they receive and that’s how we end up working all over the place. But we don’t have to have a grant to do the workshops because they’re so simple and not expensive at all.

Putting together a program can’t be too difficult.
You can start with your local soil and water district or board of health, which are oriented to education and outreach. They may already have a PowerPoint put together, and maybe you can partner with them to sponsor workshops. The state board of health can usually provide speakers and probably has a PowerPoint you can use. With all the information available, it’s not hard to put together.


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