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Stella Bowles: One Person Does Make

leah kirk

The above headline is from a story in the July 2017 Onsite Installer magazine. It tells the story of Stella Bowles and her work to upgrade wastewater systems along a Nova Scotia river. It should inspire all of us who work in the onsite wastewater industry.

The article directs you to Stella's website where she tells her story, both in print and in a YouTube video. As is the case in many locations, most people agree there is a problem with failing and polluting septic systems, but the difficulty is getting a consensus on how to fix the problem and to agree to spend the needed money.

Stella's passion for clean water started when the family's septic system leachfield failed a few years ago. The family hired an installer for the new system right away, borrowing money to pay for it. The new septic system was installed and working fine, but Stella never forgot listening in on the conversation with the system engineer talking about the straight pipes. It seems neighbors were continuing to use straight pipes to convey their waste directly in the river, which has been illegal since 1974. Stella was deeply troubled with the image of homeowners, in essence, relieving themselves directly into the river. She became determined to do something about the straight pipes.


Stella started sampling water up and down the river for fecal bacteria levels, setting up a lab in her basement and publishing findings and other information on her science project website. The results showed that at many times and in many locations the water in the river is not safe for swimming or even touching. There are an estimated 600 straight pipes dumping into the LaHave River in the local stretch where Stella lives. Stella reports that she can sometimes smell the human waste at low tide and has found used toilet paper during her testing. She is advocating for the provincial government to close loopholes that allow straight pipes to continue to flow. She's asked legislators to force upgrades to approved septic systems when properties are sold.

Local officials are on board, and a grant and loan program has been approved to help homeowners pay for the upgrades. But the provincial government is needed for enforcement and officials have yet to get on board. A letter to Stella from Nova Scotia Environment said legislation to eliminate straight pipes "was not supported due to the potential impact on the sale of properties."

But Stella's hard work - combined with the efforts of scientists, environmentalists and onsite industry leaders - hopefully will eventually tip the scales and force the dismantling of straight pipes on the LaHave and other threatened waterways. Stella said, "I'm going to keep going until the straight pipes are gone. I definitely want to be able to swim in the river. Hopefully it will be clean enough by the time I have children, because it's a beautiful spot." I wish Stella's story was an isolated incident, but we have failing and polluting septic systems all around us - I have seen many in my 17-year career. Unfortunately, we may need an army of Stellas to get us off our backsides and do something about it.