Lake Skaneateles Watershed Composting Toilet Project
City of Syracuse, Department of Water
20 West Genesee St.
Skaneateles, New York 13152
phone: (315)-685-6486
fax: (315)685-8160

Lake Skaneateles, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, has a surface area of 13.6 square miles and a 59 square mile watershed. It is one of the few remaining unfiltered drinking water supplies left in the United States. It supplies potable water to the City of Syracuse, with a population of 160,000, and many small villages and water districts along 17 miles of water conduits which flow by gravity to reservoirs within the City. Lake Skaneateles Watershed Rules and Regulations have been in effect since 1896, just two years after the City began taking water from the lake. A City sponsored pail service was initiated in 1908 to address the growing number of cottages being constructed along the shoreline. To be eligible for the service cottage owners had to construct outhouses (privies) to City specifications. This included the construction of a wooden box with a hinged lid and hole cut out for a toilet seat. The city provided clean 5 gallon buckets and removed the full buckets, transporting the sewage by wagons to a remote location for disposal. In the 1920's there were approximately 250 cottages utilizing this service. Due to advances in septic system design and construction by 1998, 100 cottages remained on the service.

Today the City of Syracuse funds and coordinates numerous water quality protection programs including the Watershed Protection Program, Lake Skaneateles Watershed Agricultural Program and the Lake Skaneateles Watershed Land Protection Program. The programs utilize sophisticated management tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in an effort to protect this valuable resource. A comprehensive inspection program which includes annual inspections of the estimated 2600 residences on the watershed (1000 of which are lakefront) as well as annual inspections of agricultural and commercial facilities is a primary focus of the Watershed Protection Program. The design and installation of on-site wastewater treatment systems are concurrently reviewed and inspected by the respective County Health Departments and City Personnel. Combining a rigorous inspection program to detect failing systems along with watershed rules and regulations ensuring abatement and direct oversight over the repairs has significantly minimized the potential impact from improperly installed or failing systems.

With the above layers of watershed protection and technology in place, the century old practice of collecting 5 gallon buckets of raw sewage and transporting them by pick-up truck and boat for disposal appeared antiquated. In the winter of 1997 a proposal was submitted to the Commissioner of the Syracuse Water Department to replace the remaining 100 residences utilizing pail service with composting toilets funded by the City. Along with the obvious environmental benefits it was estimated that this project would have a return on investment of two years. Estimated savings to the City over a 10 year period were between $400,000 and $800,000. A pilot project was initiated in the summer of 1998 and five pail service residences were selected, representing the most challenging sites regarding installation as well as continued operation of composting toilets. The City has documented buckets collected at individual cottages for decades allowing for comparison between cottages as to the amount of sewage produced over certain time periods. An existing database also provided information on occupancy and number of bedrooms at the cottages. Two composting toilets certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), an independent testing laboratory were selected for the project. In the spring of 2001, funds were appropriated through the City administration for the continuation of the project. Local contractors were selected for the installation of the toilets and notices were sent to pail service residents signifying the phasing out of the City operated service. Prior to each installation, a site visit was conducted to identify present and possible future use of the cottage and determine placement of the unit. A toilet was then selected with the cottage owners consent. A database was also created to record the progress of each installation and document problems encountered during installation or operation.

The education component has been vital to the success of this project. Many cottage owners were apprehensive about abandoning a unique waste disposal method which they have utilized for generations. Others voiced their concerns regarding odors, mechanical failures and operation and maintenance responsibilities. To address residents concerns, workshops were offered featuring references from the composting toilet manufacturer, installers and City of Syracuse representatives. Mailings are also distributed frequently presenting operation and maintenance protocols such as Spring Start Up and Fall Shut Down Procedures and announcing finished compost collection dates.

As of August 30, 2002, composting toilets have been installed at 59 residences on the Lake Skaneateles Watershed. Models selected are self-contained and central composting units and all are dry toilets. Initially, overflow drains were discharged to 5 gallon gas cans to determine the volume of leachate which could be expected during peak use and to allow for collection of leachate samples for pathogen nutrient testing. In 2002, evapo-transpiration beds were installed, replacing the gas cans. The bed sizes are based on the volume of leachate observed in the gas cans as well as estimated future occupancy of the cottage. Collection of finished compost is collected by City personnel each spring and is transferred to a remote location where it is combined with carbon based products such as grass clippings, leaves and hay and allowed to secondary compost. Finished and secondary compost will be tested regularly for e. coli and nutrient levels.