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Revee Needham, ’18, looks at septic systems with Madison County Department of Health

By Upstate Institute on August 1, 2017

Environmental Studies major Revee Needham works with the Madison County Department of Health this summer on water quality projects.

The Madison County Department of Public Health has a variety of programs aimed at protecting and enhancing the health of our community. I worked under the Environmental Health division, where we work towards a healthy environment for all. On any given day, workers may be collecting water samples, following up on a report of raw sewage, verifying safety plans at children’s camps, or responding to concerned residents’ calls regarding restaurants. My project was designed at the intersection of water quality and wastewater treatment.

Recently, homeowners of lakefront properties have been shifting their residence from seasonal to fulltime and renovating their homes. When a large renovation occurs, the septic system in place must be inspected and upgraded if deemed necessary. Traditional septic systems require a minimum size of suitable land to properly treat the water. With many lakefront homes, the parcel size is small and the proximity to the lake requires more advanced treatment to protect public health. Enhanced Treatment Units (ETUs) provide such additional treatment and can even reduce nitrogen levels, one factor that can lead to unsightly algae. While the additional treatment is excellent, these systems are more complicated and require additional maintenance. Therefore, my task for the summer was to see if homeowners are maintaining their systems as instructed by NY State Sanitary Code and the approved plans. Overall, this seeks to protect the health of those who live around lakes, their drinking water supplies, those who use lakes recreationally, and the environmental quality of the lakes.

My project consisted of researching ETUs, specifically aerobic units that surround lakes. I created an inventory with details on all of these units in the county and from that, developed a map using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Additionally, I surveyed homeowners to ensure that they are being maintained and to see how the units are working. With this information, the county is better informed of the higher risk septic systems surrounding lakes. Finally, I’ve been updating maps of radon levels in the county. As Madison County has elevated levels of radon, the new maps better inform homeowners and town officials.

Working with the Environmental Health division has allowed me to see one application of my studies in practice. I haven’t focused so much on health in my coursework, so this fellowship has allowed me to explore that sector. I’m grateful to be able to participate in a local program, learning more about the county that I’ve called home for three years.

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