Tonto Creek Cleanup Effort Wins Testing, Education Grant

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The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality last week awarded a grant to help prevent leaking septic systems from polluting Tonto and Christopher Creeks.

The Tonto Watershed Improvement Group will get about $72,000 from the state to train volunteers on how to take measurements from the creeks to check for bacteria, phosphates, nitrates and low oxygen levels and then educate homeowners about the problem.

That grant will bolster an earlier, $260,000 grant from ADEQ to install a wastewater treatment system at the Tonto Rim Christian Camp to upgrade leaking septic systems installed in the 1970s and 1980s.

“We’re not trying to be a watchdog,” said Larry Fultz who heads up the watershed improvement group, “first of all we’re trying to inform the public and help specific homeowners. If our waters go bad, property values go down — it’s to everyone’s advantage to keep the water clean.”

At least once this year, Gila County has issued warnings of high bacteria levels in the creek, generally down by Box Canyon below the homes. Last summer, much of the creek was basically closed to use for a month or more, due to high bacteria levels.

Homeowners hope that higher flows this summer from the snowpack on the Rim and a bountiful monsoon season may keep bacteria levels from building up.

Back in 2004, an ADEQ study on upper Tonto Creek and Christopher Creek found that sewage had begun to pollute the creek. Not many cattle graze anywhere along the creek, so experts suspect that many of the 30- to 50-year-old, failing septic systems pose the chief problem.

The earlier ADEQ study found unhealthy levels of E. coli in 140 water samples near the headwaters of Tonto Creek and for 10 miles down, including the confluence with Christopher Creek.

The Tonto Watershed Improvement Group hopes the trained volunteers can both monitor the creek and give talks to homeowners and business owners about how to properly manage septic systems, set up sewage treatment systems and develop a sanitary district.

“Environmental stewardship and education about sediment pollution sources go hand-in-hand,” said ADEQ Director Benjamin H. Grumbles. “ADEQ is pleased to provide this money to the Tonto watershed group to increase awareness and prevent pollution in two of the most scenic waterways in the state.”

Fultz said “Basically, it is a grant to develop a way to get information to our stakeholders in the watershed area. We didn’t get the amount of money we needed to hire the project manager, basically because they just couldn’t find the matching funds yet. But we’ll begin educating the public as to the problem and the need and identify a volunteer water and testing group and buy the equipment to do all that testing”

The state’s water improvement grant program gets money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through the Clean Water Act.

High levels of bacteria and nitrogen in the two creeks have festered along since the state documented the problem in 2005.

That report concluded that the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery contributes to the problem, with the release of water from the fish growing ponds rich in nitrogen and phosphorous from the waste of the 400,000 fish raised there annually.

The fishery has been working on maintaining and expanding settling ponds and wetlands to absorb the nutrients before they enter the creek, as well as using fish food that reduces the total amount of waste and sand filters to remove nitrogen and other elements.

That mostly leaves the much more difficult problem of aging septic systems, often decades old and built to crude standards that would never win approval today.

The grant to the Tonto Rim Christian Camp demonstrates one possibility, upgrading an existing septic system. Normally, self-contained septic systems contain a tank that allows solid wastes to settle to the bottom, where they’re broken down by bacteria.

Every five years or so, the homeowner has to pump out those solid wastes and have them hauled away for disposal. In the meantime, the water from the showers and toilets goes through the tanks and out into a leach field to soak into the ground after the solids have settled out.

These leach fields can eventually break down, so that more and more bacteria starts escaping with the water that has to flow through the system every day. The ADEQ grant to the Rim Country Christian Camp pays to attach a filtration system to the existing septic system, so that all the bacteria is filtered out of the water before it’s put back into the water table and the creek.

Individual homeowners can hook up similar systems and even qualify for grants to install them. However, the watershed improvement group is focusing on a more cost-effective, long-term solution, which would involve a wastewater treatment system for the whole area.

Not only can a wastewater treatment system cost less per house than new, state-of-the-art septic systems, but a sewage district can more easily get grants and use long-term, low-cost bonds to reduce the overall cost.

Fultz said for the moment the fledgling group is focusing on monitoring water quality and educating homeowners as to the need to work together toward a long-term solution.

“Fifty years ago when they started building in here, septic systems were a hole in the ground and couple of cement blocks and that was it,” said Fultz.

“Those are all failing. There weren’t a lot of zoning laws in those days and we discovered that even septic systems put in 25 years ago are failing now. We have systems going right directly into the stream. And we’ve got domestic wells too. A lot of these cabins and so forth have their own wells, and their own septic,” which means the septic systems can pollute the drinking water without any outside testing of the water.

The earlier overall report concluded that the bacteria levels peak during the heavy use of the area in the summer.

“Bacteria levels increased with downstream distance suggesting heavy recreational uses,” the report concluded.

“Bacteria levels in the waterbodies also increased over the summer season suggesting an increase due to accumulation in sediments, an increase in recreational use, or both. The data do not suggest a relationship between bacteria and the hatchery discharge.

“Stream reaches of Tonto and Christopher Creek requiring the largest E. coli load reductions are located near the Bear Flat development, Kohl’s Ranch, Tonto Rim Baptist Camp, R-Bar-C Boy Scout Ranch, and Camp Tontozona, an Arizona State University retreat center and sports training camp. All of these developments and camps are on septic systems.

Additionally, the R-Bar-C Boy Scout Ranch is equipped with a mixture of septic, vault toilets and also maintains a central waste collection and processing system. From mid-May to mid-September, these areas are heavily populated due to camping, picnicking and fishing.

“Other heavily populated recreation areas and campgrounds have been identified as additional sources of bacteria and nutrient loading in Tonto and Christopher creeks. These include Tonto Creek near the Bear Flat campground, and Christopher Creek near recreation sites close to See Spring and Box Canyon where human contact with the water, picnicking, and fishing are common. Water recreation at popular swimming areas within the Tonto National Forest and Box Canyon may contribute to bacterial loads.”

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