It is widely accepted, but not documented that improperly managed septic systems contribute to major water quality problems. The US EPA states in the “Volunteer National Guidelines for Management of Onsite and Clustered Treatment Systems” that improper design, construction, installation, operation and/or maintenance are the source of these onsite waste treatment failures. EPA hopes to better determine the extent of the relationship as documentation becomes available.
In the “1996 Report to Congress on the National Water Quality Inventory” the second most frequently cited contaminated source for water was improperly constructed and poorly maintained septic systems causing nutrient and microbial contamination to groundwater. In that survey 500 communities were noted to have had public health problems caused by failed septic systems. In 2003 EPA reported that 168,000 viral and 34,000 bacterial illnesses occur each year from drinking water contaminated by waterborne pathogens from fecal contamination. Proper maintenance of septic systems (both traditional and alternative) is essential for protection of public health and local water resources. In 1996 more than 25% of existing homes and 33% of new developments were served by septic systems. The EPA estimated that by 1999 over 30% of the households were served by onsite septic systems, and that number has probably crept up with the building boom that took place in 2000-2006. More than half of the existing onsite systems are over 30 years old and 10% of these older systems back up into homes or yards each year. Reportedly, the homeowner was unaware that there was a problem with their system until it backed up. This problem will only be made worse by the increasing number of alternative systems that require more maintenance. Long before global warming impacts the earth’s populations; lack of clean reliable potable water will. Our water resources need to be protected.
My libertarian streak would love to believe that homeowners would care for their septic systems appropriately to avoid the system backing up in the future, contamination of the groundwater (which may be the source of the local drinking water), and future septic system repair bills of tens of thousands of dollars to remediate and replace a system. Unfortunately, many homeowners are unaware of how septic systems work and what is necessary to maintain them. In addition, people do not seem to be able take appropriate responsibility for their systems. One method to deal with this problem is to eliminate all but the most basic systems in the most geologically favorable locations (reduce percolation rate tolerances and design the systems as conservatively as possible). The other method is to regulate, control and track. Establish system performance and monitoring and maintenance requirements, establish a tracking system and operating permits for compliance monitoring, and establish fee system and fines to fund and enforce the program. As a society we collect taxes, we license, register, and inspect cars; how different would it be to license, register and inspect/maintain a septic system. After all, unlike cars, septic systems stay put and should be easy to track.