The United States has made tremendous advances in the past 35 years to clean up our rivers and streams under the Clean Water Act by controlling pollution from industry and sewage treatment plants. In order to continue to make progress in cleaning up our rivers and streams EPA has turned their focus to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources. According to EPA, nonpoint source pollution remains the Nation's largest source of water quality problems. EPA has stated nonpoint source pollution as the reason 40% of our surveyed rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming. To continue to improve the quality of the surface and groundwater in the United States, the EPA has wants to expand its programs to include control and oversight of non-point sources of contamination and has used methods such as the Chesapeake Bay Totals Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits for sediment and the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen.
Nonpoint source pollution occurs when rainfall, snowmelt, or irrigation runs over land or through the ground, picks up pollutants, nutrients, sediment and carries them to streams and on into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters or percolates into the ground and groundwater. Agriculture, forestry, grazing, septic systems, vehicles including cars, trucks, trains, boats, urban runoff, construction, physical changes to stream channels and land surface, and habitat degradation are potential sources of nonpoint source pollution. Careless or uninformed household management also contributes to nonpoint source pollution. Unfortunately, we did not do enough to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources- from our homes and living.
Non-point source contamination has always been under the oversight of the states, and the nature of the sources of this contamination make it very challenging for even state and local regulatory agencies to make any progress. EPA has used the Chesapeake Bay TMDL to force the states to develop plans to manage and reduce nonpoint source pollution. In the past public and private groups have developed and used pollution prevention and pollution reduction initiatives. One example is the Soil and Water Conservation Districts that help educate citizens about their watershed and assist farmers in implementing best management practices and other nonpoint pollution controls using cost share dollars from the state and developing nutrient management plants. Nonetheless, more than environmental education activities seems necessary to get citizens to implement the best practices and low impact development strategies and control their own sources of nonpoint pollution starting with the most basic maintenance and care of their septic systems.
Simply pumping out your septic tank would be a good start at reducing nonpoint pollution, but homeowners just don’t do it. EPA and the Virginia Department of the Environment (through the VDH) have struggled with the challenges of better management of septic systems. There are more than 26 million septic systems in the United States, representing almost a quarter of all U.S. households. It is assumed that in Virginia a fairly rural state that at least a quarter of households use a septic system to treat their wastewater. Proper septic system care and maintenance is vital to protecting public health and preserving valuable water resources and the environment, but has been difficult to achieve.
In Virginia alternative septic systems, called AOSS, are regulated, but compliance with the regulations has been poor. The VDH has been holding stakeholder meetings to develop recommendations to increase homeowner and private sector participation in their program which requires an annual inspection of a system (by a licensed operator), regular maintenance and regular pumping of the tank.
Taking the steps recommended by the EPA for SepticSmart Week would be a great start at reducing nonpoint pollution of our waters. Homeowners can do their part by following these SepticSmart tips:
- Protect It and Inspect It: In general, homeowners should have their traditional septic system inspected every three years and their alternative system inspected annually by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.
- Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
- Don’t Overload the Commode: Ask guests to only to put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems. Flushable wipes are not flushable and do not break down in a septic tank.
- Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks, install faucet aerators and water-efficient products, and spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day and week. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.
- Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.