Good Steward

At work and in personal life, Jerry Stonebridge dedicates himself
to taking care of the environment in the Pacific Northwest

By Rosalie E. Leposky

Stonebridge Environmental Inc. on Whidbey Island, Wash., merges founder Jerry Stonebridge’s interests: scientific inquiry, quality customer service and the desire to apply the best available technology to protect the local groundwater and watersheds.

Stonebridge Environmental Inc. is an outgrowth of Stonebridge Construction Company Inc., a house-building firm started by Jerry’s father, Harold Stonebridge, in 1946. In 1976, Jerry changed it into an earth-working company with onsite system design and installation as its focus.

Later, Jerry added a division, Wastewater, Water Management and Maintenance Specialists, to coordinate onsite inspections and maintenance. A third division, Pacific Drip Technology, was added to handle the sale of pre-engineered drip dispersal packages supplied by American Manufacturing Co. Inc. With its three divisions, Stonebridge Environ- mental Inc., can take customers from raw land to final construction.

Jerry is president of Stonebridge Environmental, and his wife, Suzi, is vice president. “We plan to move on to other opportunities sometime soon and are setting the company up so ownership can be passed to key employees,” Jerry says.

Sensitive environment
Whidbey Island is a serpentine strip of land 45 miles long that parallels the east shore of Puget Sound. About 79,000 people live there year-round, and about 89,000 during the tourist season. Island County, designated as a single-source aquifer region, has stringent regulations governing surface water and groundwater discharges.

There are many public shellfish harvesting areas on the shoreline and floating rafts in the bays for commercial growing of oysters and Penn Cove mussels. County citizens want these areas protected against non-point pollutant discharges from failing septic systems.

Because some species of salmon in Puget Sound are on the Endangered Species List, all stormwater outfalls also are regulated by Public Works and the Department of Fish and Game. This means Jerry’s company must concern itself with stormwater infiltration and discharge as well as the onsite system.

“What we do here in this environmentally sensitive setting does influence water- quality regulations in the rest of Washington, and it may influence how regulations are written in Oregon and California,” Jerry says.

“Most of the time, we take customers from their basic site development to final construction. We can do everything involving the site – clearing, earth moving, road building, excavation for buildings, utility trenching, stormwater catchments and onsite wastewater treatment systems.

“We usually design the septic system, install it, inspect it and maintain it. It makes life easier having our company involved with all aspects of the work. That way we don’t have houses built on our soil dispersal sites, nor do we have utility trenches crossing our systems or gutter drains tied into our dose/equalization tanks.

“Since the company does inspections and maintenance, we also do upgrades and repairs on all types of onsite systems. I have learned more about onsite systems from doing trouble shooting and repairs than from any other aspect of the business.”

Evaluation first
The first step in the Stonebridge Environmental planning process is to evaluate the property. “We visit each site with the customer to get a sense of where they would like to build and what they want the site to look like when construction is complete,” says Jerry.

“ You can get a feeling from the owner as to which trees or special aspects of the property are important to them. We go as far as asking them why they bought this particular piece of property.”

The next step is to create the soil logs on the site in areas where there will be no roads or structures, and where there are good landscape architectures for siting a soil absorption dispersal field.

“During site visits, we also note whether the property is located in an area that is deemed a sensitive area – one that has wetlands or streams nearby, shellfish harvesting, unstable slopes or bluffs, or wellhead protection areas,” Jerry says. “We locate and measure all physical features to ensure that we have the necessary horizontal setbacks for installation of soil absorption fields.”

In sensitive areas, specific organic, nutrient or pathogen reductions may be necessary, and the system must be designed accordingly. “We have designed drip dispersal systems using shallow installation with zones in different areas of the property,” he says. “The drip tubing is installed in the top six to 12 inches of soil. Effluent drips into the root and microbial zone, making nitrates and phosphates available for plant uptake and organics available for microbial decomposition.

We always look for the possibility of gravity flow from the house to the onsite components, but the State of Washington and Island County regulations require three feet of vertical separation from impervious soil or season ground water. If we don’t have the necessary vertical separation, we have a variety of alternative systems that can be used.

“We dig soil pits to determine depth of permeable soil and evaluate structure, texture, compaction and mottling caused by winter water tables. Our original soils were laid down by glaciers 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, so we have a lot of soil combinations.” This information, along with the landscape architecture, is used to set parameters for design of the treatment system.

Understanding usage
Jerry also tries to understand how customers intend to use the system. Have they ever used an onsite system before? What are their water usage habits? Do they compost? Do they have large family get-togethers or parties? How many children? What age and gender? “Other questions come up as you talk with the customers on usage,” Jerry says. The answers help us design a system to handle the family’s needs well into the future.”

The design is then submitted to the local health jurisdiction for review and approval. Once the customer has an approved design, the installation bid process can begin. “We usually bid on our designs and win the installation contract because of the confidence we have gained with the customer,” Jerry says.

He also bids on installations where he has not done the site evaluation or design, but in those cases, “We always visit the sites and look them over to make sure nothing has changed on the property since the permit was issued.”

Jerry observes that the State of Washington is progressive in allowing new technologies into the state and local code. That allows for a wider spectrum of tools that can be used to meet the wastewater needs of customers.

Changing awareness
Jerry believes that as a general rule, onsite providers – designers, soil evaluators, installers, inspectors, operation and maintenance providers and pumpers – have not been in close enough contact with planners and policy makers.

Outside his own business, Jerry is an advocate for the onsite industry in his home state and nationally. He is co-founder of the Washington On-Site Sewage Association (WOSSA) and the Northwest Onsite Wastewater Training Center (NOWTC). In November 2004, he became vice president (president-elect) of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA).

“We have to be more involved in the development of regulations and our community decision-making process when it comes to watershed management,” he says. “The decisions made by policy makers, planners and communities affect how and what work we can do. We no longer can work as isolated groups. All service providers need to be involved and promote the onsite/decentralized industry. The decisions of government ultimately affect how we run our business.

“Our company got involved with the planning for Freeland, an unincorporated area on south Whidbey Island where we work and have our business. We were able to persuade the engineering firm to look at a decentralized solution for sewage and stormwater. We did not want the water to just outfall to Puget Sound. We wanted it to be treated and placed back into the watershed to recharge our single-source aquifer.”

Setting standards

Jerry believes the industry’s compelling needs are to have performance-based regulations and standards, certification or licensing of all service providers and maintenance of all onsite systems.

“We should not let systems go for years and years without regular inspections and maintenance when needed,” he says. “In most jurisdictions, the onsite wastewater treatment system is the responsibility of the property owner, but in many instances the homeowner doesn’t even know where the system is, nor has any idea that it needs to be inspected and maintained.

“We tell customers, you don’t drive your car until it quits – you maintain it. You change the oil and do other recommended maintenance. Your onsite system requires the same kind of preventive maintenance. The more bells and whistles a system has, the more often you need to inspect and do the needed maintenance.

“We try to inform our clients about the care and feeding of their system. We explain to them it’s a biological system that lives and dies. When the bugs die, there can be some nasty effluent moving into the environment. And if the environment becomes sick, so will the community.
“We educate and make sure our employees are certified and licensed so when conferring with our clients, they can answer questions and speak intelligently about onsite systems. Anyone considering entering the industry should learn as much about basic science as they can.”

It takes a community

Jerry believes that everyone involved – homeowners, regulators, policy makers and service providers – need to help make sure that alternative onsite systems continue to operate for 20 years or more. “Everyone shares that responsibility, and regulations must be enforced,” he says.

“Each onsite system we build or service will be inspected as needed. The timeframe for inspection will be determined by how the system is used or abused, the type of technology, the performance standard that is set and the assimilative capacity of the site. All systems will be finalized before start-up to make sure everything is hooked up properly. For example, if electricity is needed, make sure it’s on.

“We check back before the system has been in operation for six months and look for any problems. If there are none, we come back one year after start-up and do a thorough inspection. At this time, we will determine what the frequency of inspections will be, unless that is spelled out in the operating manual.”

That kind of care bodes well for the sensitive environments of Whidby Island, and for any place where onsite systems provide the essential service of wastewater treatment.

© Pumper