Last week was a busy one for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They launched “SepticSmart,”
a new program encouraging homeowners to properly care for and maintain their septic systems. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25% of U.S. households have septic systems, and it is believed by regulators that most are not properly maintained. That is more than 26 million homes whose household waste may not be properly treated by natural processes because the septic systems are not managed and maintained properly and are predominately not regulated. EPA controls the treatment of the rest of the nation’s human and household waste directly by point source regulations and permits, but at this time can only encourage proper behavior in septic system owners.
The number of households with septic systems is large and growing, approximately a third of all new homes have septic systems. EPA has become increasingly concerned over the impact of nutrient contamination into bays and estuaries and is looking for ways to reach individual homeowners. The SepticSmart program is also directed to health departments and environmental groups with recommended actions and outreach
pointing out “(a)cross the country, local environmental groups, health departments, and governments face the challenges posed by improperly maintained and failing septic systems. EPA seeks to assist these local agencies in promoting homeowner education and awareness.” Improperly maintained septic systems are reported to be the largest cause of contamination to private drinking water wells, but that tends to be an extremely local phenomena (the well you are most likely to impact is your own or your next door neighbor’s). In addition, more than a third of homes with septic systems do not have drinking water wells because of the problem of contamination. The big concern that the EPA has is nutrient contamination from septic systems.
Nutrients primarily nitrogen and phosphorus are needed by plants and animals to survive, but when too many nutrients make their way into local rivers, streams and bays, they can overwhelm the ecology and create conditions that are harmful to estuary grasses and aquatic life. Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus are the main cause of the Chesapeake Bay's poor health and the reason that EPA has created the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)
. Over the past quarter century the excess nutrient contamination to the Chesapeake Bay has decreased, but the Bay’s waters remain seriously degraded from their natural ecology. As a result, US EPA has taken control of the situation and has developed a new federally mandated TMDL to restore the local waters.
While EPA has no authority to regulate septic systems within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, they can indirectly, by requiring states to include septic system management in the compliance plans called Watershed Implementation Plans or WIPs. The TMDL allocates a pollution budget among the states which will decrease over time and the states have to issue and have EPA accept WIPs that meet EPA standards or the EPA will lower the MS4 and Wastewater Treatment Plants allowed nutrient output to meet the goal.
That is the most expensive method of compliance, costing billions more than other acceptable strategies. According to the EPA model of the Chesapeake Bay, septic system account for 4.5% of the nitrogen released to the Chesapeake Bay. It is probable that in other watersheds in the country that have excess nutrient pollution (like the Mississippi River and delta) that septic systems contribute a similar amount of nutrient pollution.
There are very few septic regulations in the nation and EPA does not at this time have authority to regulate non-point sources of contamination. There have been several bills before congress that would expand the Clean Water Act, but none have so far passed and in reality there is great difficulty in regulating individual homeowners and controlling the way they operate their septic systems. Septic systems are a suburban and rural, where monitoring of individual homeowner operation and maintenance of septic systems and oversight are difficult. EPA has instead effectively used the TMDL and WIPs each of the six Chesapeake Bay watershed states and Washington DC were required to develop and have approved by EPA to push for improvements in septic systems. The Virginia WIP had $1.6 billion in improvements in septic systems and Maryland had $3.7 billion (these of course will be paid for by the homeowners). The states in turn will have to find ways to reach homeowners with septic systems and behaviors that can be regulated. It would be very difficult to ban garbage disposals in private homes, or regulate what you can flush down the toilet, pour down the drain, or how many loads of laundry can be done in a day. However, it is easier to require more frequent pump outs of septic tanks and track that behavior. There are a multiple of sins in operating a septic system that can be compensated for by pumping a tank every 3 years.