Septic pollution woes divide Kent Island
— Residents of Kent Island are never far from the water. That's what drew many of them to the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, where they're close to boating, fishing and all nature's bounty.

But for the mostly tidy cottages, bungalows and other homes built decades ago on the southern end of this low-lying island, there's just one problem. Far from the nearest sewer line, they all rely on septic systems to dispose of their waste.

Four out of five homes here are pumping water-fouling nitrogen into the bay every time they flush, Queen Anne's County health officials estimate. Some even leak raw sewage into their yards or drainage ditches during wet weather.

Now county officials see a potential solution: linking more of the island to a sewage treatment plan. But that plan threatens to create another problem — increased development — and the issue is dividing island residents.

"It's crazy," says David Olds, the Queen Anne's County commissioner who represents Kent Island. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."

County officials voted last month to seek state funding to connect 1,500 homes on southern Kent Island to the county's wastewater treatment plant, which was upgraded years ago to take out the nitrogen contributing to the bay's "dead zone."

Extending a sewer line nearly eight miles down the island to reach them all could cost upwards of $70 million — up to $40,000 per existing household if they had to pay for it. That's far more than many residents are willing or able to spend, which is why county officials say they need help with the project.

But many residents also fear that a sewer line could open the island up to more intense development. As many as 1,600 vacant lots there have never been built on because they were deemed unsuitable for septic systems.

The issue is a divisive one, with sewer proponents deriding opponents as "no-growthers" and opponents suggesting profit rather than public health motivates sewer supporters.

It's also a tough test for the state's twin commitments to clean up the bay and preserve rural land through "smart growth." Gov. Martin O'Malley is seeking to curtail new development on septic systems as a way to do both, but rural officials and real estate interests are bucking him.

In this case, while a sewer might alleviate one source of pollution, more development there could increase the amount of lawn fertilizer, animal waste and other pollution washing off driveways and yards. It also would add traffic to Route 8, the two-lane road that is the lower island's only link with the rest of the Eastern Shore.

State Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers calls it "a very difficult choice." The state has helped counties fund sewer hookups for failing septic systems, but none this large. There isn't enough money to go around for all the needs, he said, and in any case the state doesn't pay for sewer that would allow new growth.

There are 420,000 septic systems in Maryland, and planners project another 120,000 could be added over the next 25 years. They account for 8 percent of the water-fouling nutrients getting into the bay, but there are so many septic systems along some bay tributaries that they furnish a quarter or more of the nitrogen.

A task force appointed by the governor is studying the future of septic-based development in Maryland and is expected to make a recommendation by December. Kent Island, though, is a legacy of development mapped out decades ago.

Speculators carved much of the southern island into building lots shortly after the first Bay Bridge was built in 1952. Many lots were snapped up as weekend or summer retreats, but over the years the small homes built here have been converted to year-round residences. That's part of the problem, health officials say, because septic systems that may work fine during relatively dry summers malfunction when spring rains raise the water table to or near the surface of the land.

A septic system relies on the soil to dispose of wastewater. Sewage is flushed into an underground tank, and flows out into the ground through a "drain field," a network of pipes with holes in them. Such systems can eliminate disease-carrying bacteria, but not the nitrogen and phosphorus in waste that fertilize plants — or feed algae blooms in the bay.

In lower Kent Island, though, the water table is so close to the surface that in wet weather some septic systems become flooded and wastewater backs up into homes or ponds in yards.

John Nickerson, the county's environmental health director, said he feels caught in the middle. He's refused for years to approve new septic systems on the southern end of the island, effectively blocking new homes from being built. The county's been sued, he said, but the courts have upheld the ban.

He's also angered some residents by insisting that improperly functioning septic systems in their communities pose a health threat that can only be fixed by connecting the existing homes to public sewer.