It is said that that much of the county in which I live is only 30-45 days away from drought. The land beneath the houses and pavement is nearly solid – compacted dried clay virtually incapable of storing water.
The state has a long-established legislatively supported policy of granting development rights to the first builder with a) the most convincing version of how much water is available, and b) the first, deepest, straw into whatever water turns out to actually be there.
For most of us, that is not a difficult set of rules. We turn on our tap and water issues forth, which we use to drink, wash ourselves and our dishes, and flush away our waste. Most of us remain unconcerned about how long that sequence will continue.
In 1998, one group of South Central Pennsylvania residents had a different idea. They created a community designed from the start to minimize demands on natural resources, including water. It seems to be working.
Hundredfold Farm, in western Adams County, is an example of “co-housing,” also sometimes called “intentional community.” It is designed for up to 15 homes (so far, there are 10) on three acres of an 80-acre parcel mostly given to Christmas tree farming. Residents range in age from about 12 to 98.
From the outside, the homes look like any conventional home in any other development – except for solar panels mounted on each roof. Each home is required to include a minimum two kilowatt solar electrical generator.
“Six of the 10 homes are net contributors to the (electricity) grid,” resident Aaron Miller said during a recent community open house.
The centerpiece of the community is on a hill above the northern end of the housing cluster. From a distance, it looks like a greenhouse, and indeed there are plants growing within. It is a manmade indoor wetland, and it does what natural wetlands do: treats wastewater.
Water from three wells and a spring is used for drinking, cooking and washing. Resulting “gray water,” drained from sinks and washing machines, is recycled as flush water.
Each home is served by a grinder pump that moves the flush water uphill to a cascading system of three septic tanks, in which solids settle out, “just like a normal septic system,” Miller explained. The solids are periodically pumped off, also like a normal septic system.
But the water, instead of draining into a sand mound or a nearby stream, is pumped into the 2,100 square foot indoor wetland. There, an assortment of plants and bacteria feed on the non-humanly useable elements. Some of the treated-by-nature water is recycled back to the homes to be reused as flush water. What is not needed in the homes is pumped to a drip-irrigation field, where it feeds wild grasses and flowers, and filters through the ground back to the water table.
“We’re keeping it local instead of going into the watershed and into the ocean,” Miller said.
Typical water treatment plants are based on water use of approximately 200 gallons per home, per day. Partly because of recycling, homes in Hundredfold Farm use less than 20 percent of the normally estimated amount.
Hundredfold’s system is designed to process 4,000 gallons a day.
“Right now, with 10 out of (a planned) 15 houses, we’re using 400 gallons a day,” Miller said, adding. “It would be nice if we could run it through our flower beds.”
The water processing system is subject to a rigid testing regimen, supervised by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“Originally, when the facility was given an experimental permit, the sub-surface drip field was permitted,” said DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz. “At that time there was no additional data to determine whether the final effluent was safe for use on residential flower beds.”
Eventually, sufficient data will be accumulated by DEP to decide whether the water may be used on near-home flower gardens and lawns.
Kasianowitz said a current draft guidance for re-using wastewater on plants grown for human consumption would require the water to be “highly treated and highly disinfected.”
The Hundredfold Farm wetland cost $137,000 to build, according to community co-founder Bill Hartzell, who also is the treatment plant’s licensed operator.
“I do not recall the cost of the package plants we looked at,” Hartzell said.
When the community could not find a wastewater treatment plant operator licensed to supervise the “experimental” wetland, Hartzell went to school, passed the tests, and became licensed. He donates his service to the community.
“Another nice thing about the greenhouse is that I can fix everything in it,” he said. “With a package system, I assume we’d have to call in a costly technician with specialty parts.”
Cost of electricity to operate the system also is kept low; four of the six homes with excess electricity from their solar systems donate that power to the wetland.
In the larger Adams County community, concern has been spreading in recent years that water may soon be in short supply. The county’s population, until the 2008 housing construction collapse, had been skyrocketing. A plan had been drawn up to pipe three million gallons a day from the Susquehanna River to Straban Township, just east of Gettysburg. That plan likely will resurface when the economy allows housing construction to restart.
But water availability is like home garages and interstate highways: the bigger you make them, the more you can put in them. Three million gallons of water will serve about 12,000 new homes. Home number 12,001 will need water.
Some version of the Hundredfold Farm wetland may be a good way to stretch the available supply.
Photo by John Messeder
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