Building Principles: "The Sky is Falling!" – Mr. C. Little

by Rick Stryker, P.E.

There is a fable about a character named Chicken Little who is plunked on the head by an acorn falling from a branch above. Being prone to panic, he announces to everyone he encounters that the sky (instead of the acorn) was falling. The panic spreads over nothing. Occasionally, we've had some sideways looks when we've forecast really dire problems that can result from mismanaged or misunderstood infrastructure. Last summer, one such predictable and wholly preventable incident happened to a camp in Wyoming. While not a client of ours, it's likely it's an organization much like any other camp, and it fell victim to "following the rules," without understanding the intent behind them or perhaps settling for "the way we've always done it."

The information we'll use for our discussion here was published in the June 6, 2007, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The long and the short of the story is that an outbreak of gastroenteritis resulted from water supply well contamination. The first case of diarrhea, vomiting and cramps was reported on July1, the last day of the one week session. The article says that camp "voluntarily closed at the recommendation of the Department . . . ." three weeks later on July 20. The Health Department contacted 210 of the 277 people resident or who had come through the camp over a six-week period and found that 67 percent of those contacted reported symptoms. Further study revealed that folks probably contracted the illness by consuming water from an outdoor spigot or had roomed with an infected person.

Two relatively shallow wells (30' – 50') were located about 120' from a septic tank that had been installed in the 1950s. These distances complied with State regulations for minimum separation. However, bacteriological comparison between the flora in the tank and the bacteria infecting the people, told the Health Department that indeed, septic waste had contaminated the wells. In addition, the JAMA article suggests that the camp had completed the tests as required by the state regulations, but that the higher standards of the EPA for a public water supply would be applied to that system in the future.

Compliance Versus Using Your Smarts

Do you have chills yet? Feeling a little queasy? It's probably not bacterial gastroenteritis, but instead the cold dread that comes along with the thought, "I wonder what shape WE'RE in…?" "How can it be that they followed the rules and still had this happen?" you're thinking. As we've said for years, there should be no real comfort in "It's always been like that," "We've never done it that way before," or "We don't have to because we're grandfathered.'" Let's take a look at the simplest, most superficial aspects of this story and see where being smart instead of simply being compliant might have helped avoid this sad situation.

Every state has regulations which specify the minimum distance that water supply wells can exist from a host of buried items including among many other things, septic tanks, leach fields, fuel tanks, and cemeteries (over time, bodies leach embalming fluid which migrates into groundwater. Right: Ick.). These are minimum isolation distances that aim to mitigate the likelihood of contamination. Where your water supply is concerned, though, more distance is better. The more space you can get between all possible sources of contamination, the better. In addition, wells which are near each other are more likely to draw from the same aquifer or rock fracture. One well can effectively draw water from the other. From a groundwater hydrology standpoint, the more separation between the wells, the more independent the sources of water are from each other. Your regulatory body has probably posted the pertinent regulations on the Internet and the only other thing that you need is a long measuring tape. (Your first clue that there may be a problem waiting in the wings is if you can make the measurements with a carpenter's tape.) In this case, although the minimum separation distances were met, other factors conspired to make those minima inadequate.

Further reading in the report describes a septic system which was overloaded, a tank that full to capacity on site visits made two weeks apart, and soil downhill from the septic tank that was damp with sewage. No. It had NOT always been like that. There simply is no excuse for a septic tank to be full of waste. Human feces are more than 90 percent liquid and usually disassociate completely in a short amount of time when in constant contact with water, so they take up a miniscule amount of space in a large tank. It's likely that it had not been pumped for years and years (if ever). In addition, if the tank was full on July 20 and it was pumped clear upon discovery, and it was found on August 3 full again, there is something seriously wrong with the system. Either the leach field was damaged and not draining, the septic tank was leaking groundwater into the system and flooding it or there was another blockage somewhere in that area. A second back-up in two weeks should tell anyone that there is a health concern which requires immediate, dedicated, aggressive, and competent help. Worse yet, if it was full on July 20 and not pumped, what does that say? The law may even require notification of the Health Department. Why? Because it represents a serious public health concern! Ask the folks who got sick!

The Best Defenses

For some, one of the most disturbing aspects may be that three weeks passed from the time that the first person was sick until the Health Department got on site. However, this is not unusual by any stretch. Health departments across the country are stretched very thin indeed, and focus their resources on systems and situations which tend to affect a larger population than a single camp. This means that you, the face of camp, are the first and best line of defense when it comes to making sure that the literal "water of life" which flows from each tap is safe for your guests to drink.

What could the camp have done to prevent or at least mitigate this situation? Knowing that the wells were shallow, a well driller could have deepened both to exclude the water near the surface which is the most likely to be contaminated. Knowing that the wells were close together, the well driller could have installed a new well, several hundred feet away from both the existing cluster and wastewater system. This could have provided a completely uninfluenced source of fresh water, allowing camp to remain open. A new septic system could have been designed, permitted, and properly installed to perform in concert with the known loading and ground hydrology and geology. Bacteria samples could have been collected and tested daily, and contamination would have been identified weeks earlier. Camp could have served and cooked with bottled water while the problem was tracked down and resolved.

Disinfecting the water as a pre-emptive measure would certainly have gone a long, long way to avoiding this situation. A chemical disinfectant (like sodium hypochlorite) could have been injected in the water as it was pulled from the well, and then allowed to sit for a half hour in a tank while it killed any bacteria in the water. This is a simple, common practice, it is inexpensive, and when properly managed, does not leave a chlorine or chemical taste. In fact, some states, such as New York, have mandated that such systems be installed on each and every potable water supply with which campers will come into contact. Since inception of the mandate in New York, we are unaware of any water-borne illnesses on this nearly epidemic level.

Incidentally, notice that we didn't mention ultraviolet light. Although the germicidal qualities of UV light are well documented, neutralizing bacteria this way does not provide any residual disinfectant once the water has passed the UV unit. Any bacteria present in the distribution system downstream of the unit are free to proliferate. Water systems at camp are notorious for being leaky, and bacteria routinely enter the system through pipe joints, cracks, and unchecked backflow in the system. This is particularly true for a system that is on the ground (seasonal systems, typically) and meanders along the surface encountering rain puddles and runoff rivulets on its way to the dining hall or shower house. UV disinfection is only effective where the water will be used a very short distance away and where leaks and such are easily detected and corrected.

Avoiding Fallen Skies

Does following the rules to the letter prevent these situations? No more than simply following the rules of the road when you're driving. If you haven't maintained your brakes, you could easily die in a car crash without ever speeding or being under the influence. How can you possibly know that there's trouble brewing? Get smart! That's how! Your best bet is to seek the counsel of folks who can safely guide you through the web of "minimums:" your engineer and the Health Department.

Sure, you're likely to have fall-out regardless of who you call. The Health Department has the power to shut you down, but as you can see from this example, that normally doesn't happen until the damage to your business is already done. Your engineer is going to send you a bill. If you follow the recommendations, the contractor who fixes your system or builds a new one will send you a bill. But how does the cost of that dose of preventive medicine compare to the lost revenue (present and future) of closing camp because of water borne illness? What about costs of defending the lawsuits citing property owner's negligence for not maintaining the septic system or public water supply? Who would you rather pay: An attorney to try to explain why it's not how it looks or the engineer to help prevent the situation altogether? As seemingly catastrophic as this situation may sound, it could have been much, much worse. Small children (staff's kids, maybe?) or people with compromised immune systems could have been at grave risk. Make no mistake. It could happen and barely in the blink of an eye. Yes, indeed, the sky would truly be falling then.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer who specializes in serving the camp industry with analysis, design and site and infrastructure planning services. He can be reached at or (570) 828-4004.

Originally published in the 2007 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.