Septic or Sewer?

Planners, providers, and regulators all weigh in, from time to time, on how to grow and manage waste sustainably. “Paper vs. plastic?” is an important question for consumers to ask but even more important for individual households, communities, and watersheds, is the question of “septic or sewer”?

Septics serve a surprisingly large portion of America’s homes and businesses and can also create significant problems if poorly designed, sited, installed, and maintained. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 60 million people in the nation are served by septic systems. That means about 26 million homes (one-fourth of all homes) in America. The Census Bureau reports that the distribution and density of septic systems vary widely, from a high of about 55 percent in Vermont to a low of around 10 percent in California. The New England states have the highest proportion of homes served by septic systems: New Hampshire and Maine both report that about one-half of all homes are served by individual systems. More than one-third of the homes in the southeastern states depend on these systems, including approximately 48 percent in North Carolina and about 40 percent in both Kentucky and South Carolina.

And what about new development? Approximately one-third of all new development is served by septic or other decentralized treatment systems. That’s a large and important segment of society. What are the trends and what directions should the country be flushing towards in the spirit of growing blue and sustaining green?

Despite the benefits of septic systems, including access to service in remote areas, low cost technology, and independence from larger governmental decisions perhaps, there are also some disturbing statistics.

The U.S. Census Bureau has indicated that at least 10 percent of septic systems have stopped working. These numbers are based on a 2007 census, however. Some communities report failure rates as high as 70 percent. State agencies report that these failing systems are the third most common source of ground water contamination. In EPA’s 1997 Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems (PDF), the Agency determined that with the technology now available, adequately managed decentralized systems can protect public health and the environment as well as provide long-term solutions for the nation’s wastewater needs. The report also cited five major barriers to increasing the use of decentralized wastewater treatment systems, and one barrier is the lack of adequate management.

Despite current barriers and shortcomings, the onsite, decentralized approach has a brighter future than before. There’s a new generation of technology, stewardship, and watershed-specific strategies to collect, treat, disperse, and recycle the wealth of our waste. Erma Bombeck may have written a catchy slogan for a book (“The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank”) but here’s one of my favorite slogans: “Clean water begins at home”. That was the mantra for the decentralized treatment program in the Wastewater Management Office when I was at EPA, and although the initiative is now called SepticSmart, the mantra still fits. The EPA’s Joyce Hudson and her team work with septic system businesses, utilities, regulators, and public health officials to advance environmentally sustainable, onsite decentralized systems that leave homeowners happy and watersheds healthy. It’s centered on education, training, and collaboration.

Over the years various organizations have formed to help overcome the barriers so that decentralized systems remain a viable, cost-effective approach to meeting community and watershed needs. For example, the Water Environment Research Foundation helped fund a collaborative effort that continues to this day. Check out The National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University, and its program formerly known as the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, gets knee deep in providing technical assistance and support to rural communities and homeowners. Most of its funding is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture but EPA and other organizations provide support.

One of the most important efforts is the National Onsite Wastewater Recyclers Association, including members from a wide range of sectors and institutions to help ensure integrated and successful approaches to onsite management. It’s not just about managing the waste and keeping surface water clean. It’s also about protecting and recharging ground water through affordable technologies and smart choices.

Here’s another organization that has zeroed in on the problem and promoted the unifying theme of onsite capture, treatment, and recycling:

The Johnson Foundation, of which I’m a big fan, has devoted considerable attention to these challenges in its 2010 Charting New Waters policy report and 2012 New England Regional Freshwater Forum. I was fortunate to participate in the 2012 Forum in Boston, where they focused on ” One Water” (one of the U.S. Water Alliance’s favorite themes), with special emphasis on the growing crisis in Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod involving failing septics, costly infrastructure upgrades, and threatened ecosystems.

The U.S. EPA is also focusing on septic systems and water quality with its recent model program for onsite wastewater treatment systems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (June 2013). The document details the steps necessary for states to consider in upgrading the nutrient control technologies of septic systems, including alternative nitrogen treatment systems, to meet the Bay’s environmental goals.

Whether a community chooses the sewer and centralized treatment route or the onsite, clustered systems approach, will depend on a lot of factors, such as geography, soils, climate, cost, energy, history, and public acceptance. Whatever the choice, though, the need is great to keep working nationally and regionally to understand the costs, benefits, and risks. If the technology, stewardship, and sustainability surrounding onsite, decentralized systems continues to improve, perhaps more of the residential homes and green buildings of the future will be self-sustaining space ships complementing, not competing with, the work of regional mother ships (i.e. centralized water resources utilities of the future).

About Ben Grumbles
Ben Grumbles is President of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, DC and committed to uniting people and policies for water sustainability throughout the country. He has a long career in water and environmental policy, serving the public and teaching law students and environmental professionals, over the last 25 years.