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Septic tanks are being destroyed by climate change | Environment

Septic tanks are being destroyed by climate change | Environment

Lewis Lawrence refers to Virginia’s coastal middle peninsula as having a problem with “soggy socks”. Flooding is so persistent that people can’t walk without getting their feet wet.

Lawrence, the executive director for the Middle Peninsula Planning District has seen the problem grow over the past two decades. Rising waters and intensifying rains have made underground septic systems unreliable. Lawrence is now the executive director. When this happens, the resulting smelly and unhealthy wastewater is released into the homes.

According to him, local companies consider the Middle Peninsula the East Coast’s “septic repair capitol”. “That’s all there is to it,” he said. “And it’s only getting worse.”

As the climate changes become more severe, septic problems are becoming a problem for local governments. For decades, flushing a toilet or making wastewater disappear wasn’t considered a serious problem. It’s not the case anymore. From Miami to Minnesota, septic systems that fail are threatening clean water, ecosystems, public health, and public safety.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 20% of U.S. households depend on septic. Many systems are located in coastal areas that are subject to sea-level rise, such as New York and Boston. Nearly half of New England’s homes depend on them. Florida has 2.6 million systems. One in ten of the 120,000 systems in Miami-Dade County fails to function properly at some time during the year. This causes deadly algae blooms to Biscayne Bay, which is the only national park that is underwater. These systems would need to be converted into a central wastewater plant at a cost of more than $4B.

This complex issue combines common climate themes. Solutions are costly and beyond the reach of localities. Permitting standards that were developed when rainfall and sea level rise were relatively constant have been inadequate. People with low incomes and those who are disadvantaged have been most affected. The maintenance requirements are uneven across the country. While it is clear that septic problems are increasing, the full extent of this problem remains elusive, mainly because it is difficult to compile data, especially for the most vulnerable systems.

Scott Pippin (a researcher and lawyer at University of Georgia’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems) said that the challenges will be enormous. He studied the problem along Georgia’s coast. “Conditions change. They are becoming more difficult for the system’s functionality. We don’t have a complete picture of the problem as a large-scale, complex analysis right now. But you can expect it to grow in importance as we move forward.”

Pippin’s work in Georgia is just one example of the many studies being done by states from New Hampshire up to Alabama about the effects of septic systems failings. The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in Michigan estimates that 24% of its 1.37 million septic system are failing and contaminating the groundwater. A project funded by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examines the longer-term potential impacts of climate change upon septic system in the Carolinas. Virginia has established a Wastewater Infrastructure Policy Working Group in order to address this issue.

A spokesperson for EPA said that although the agency doesn’t have a report about the septic problem, they noted that sea level rise as well as changing water tables, precipitation changes, and increased temperatures can all cause systems to fail. Last year’s infrastructure bill provided $150 million to repair or replace systems across the country.

Traditional septic systems are an affordable solution to wastewater for over 100 years. They are able to collect wastewater from washing machines, sinks, and toilets. The tank is buried under soil and the liquid percolates through filtering soil.

If this doesn’t happen, bacteria, parasites, and other contaminants from human waste can enter drinking water supplies or recreational water supplies, creating a public problem. Also a byproduct of the waste, phosphorous and nitrogen pollute waterways, closing shellfish harvests, and killing fish.

Septic systems were designed with the assumption that groundwater levels will remain static for decades. This is no longer the case. Charles Humphrey from East Carolina University, a researcher studying groundwater dynamics, stated that systems that were permitted 40, 50, and met the criteria then would not now. Groundwater levels in North Carolina’s Dare County (which includes Outer Banks destinations like Nags Head or Rodanthe) are now a foot higher today than they were in the 1980s.

This means there’s not enough separation of the septic tank from groundwater to filter pollutants. The threat doesn’t just exist along the coasts. Intense storms that dump inches of rain in a matter of hours can soak the ground inland, compromising systems for several weeks. Too little precipitation can also be a problem. Climate change has caused a decrease in snow insulation in the Midwest. This causes frost to form and freezes drain fields, leading to failures.

Georgia, the only state that has a complete database of septic systems and spent many years building it, was the first to do so. “Everybody wants to jump to a solution. How do we build a future infrastructure? Pippin stated, “But I think the story is really about the value of investing data and in that preliminary analysis to make smart investments.

Virginia’s Middle Peninsula is plagued by soggy socks. Miami-Dade County, however, has a porous limestone rock problem. The soil below the 2.7 million South Florida residents allows septic tanks effluent to reach groundwater. This problem has been exacerbated by climate changes.

According to a study, about half of the 120,000 septic tank systems in the region were damaged or destroyed by storms and wet years. In current conditions, roughly 9,000 tanks are susceptible to failure or compromise. This number is expected to increase to 13,500 by 2040. The solution is to connect properties and sewer systems to a central system, starting in the most dangerous areas. To convert 100 homes to sewer, the county has already used $100 million of the American Rescue Plan and $126 million for 1,000 commercial septic tank conversions. If funding can be secured, the plan is for sewer expansion to the 9,000 most vulnerable properties within five to ten year.

Connecting will cost between $5,000 to $20,000. Daniella Levine Cava, Miami-Dade County Mayor, stated that the county is seeking funds to assist low- and moderate income property owners.

“What’s at risk?” She asked. “I’m sitting in my 29th-floor office and looking out at the beautiful bay. This is our lifeblood. Tourism is not possible without a clean bay. We don’t have good health. We don’t have a marine sector. It is the lifeline, and the economic driver.”

Low-income communities may be discouraged by Levine Cava’s cost. The Oakland neighborhood, which is populated mainly by elderly Black residents, has suffered numerous septic failures over the years in the Chuckatuck borough in Suffolk, a sprawling suburb in Southeast Virginia. They blame both storm-water runoff from new development and the failure of the city’s ditches to drain the water.

Roosevelt Jones, now 81, moved into the neighborhood in 1961 and used an outhouse. Soon after, he had a septic installed. In recent years, however, his system and those of others in the area have been failing more frequently, resulting in backups in toilets and sinks. Jones, who has lived at his 1,300-square feet cottage since 1961, was forced to pump his tank four times during the 2020 winter. Each pump cost $350. He said that the norm is once every five years. “When we get a lot of rain, it will flood my septic tanks.”

Jones, who was a warehouse quality control worker but retired from the job, finds himself in a church where he cleans up the road.

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Residents were offered the option of connecting to the sewer system after the city built a pipeline in their neighborhood to supply sewer service to more than 100 homes higher up. Prices starting at $300,000. However, it was expensive – approximately $7,000 per home. Many residents of the village live on a fixed income. The price was too high. Only 33 of 75 property owner voted, with 18 favoring a sewer line. “A lot of people got them.” [the petitions]Jones said that Jones ended throwing them away.

Lawrence witnessed the effects of climate change in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Lawrence is surrounded by three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock Rivers and the York River. He stated that failure to address the problem could cause decades of environmental progress to be lost.

He said, “You’re still doing all the work over the last 30 years to clean the Chesapeake Bay.” Because every residential home is just sitting there with bad stuff in its septic tank, one or two hurricanes could destroy it.

The General Assembly approved other septic systems within a short time after Lawrence began working in the planning district in 1997. They are designed to have a secondary treatment, which purifies the wastewater before it is released into the soil.

Even these alternative systems are now failing. Why? They don’t know how to deal with flooding and flooding occurs often on the Middle Peninsula.

States haven’t updated their wastewater regulations for septic system in decades. Lance Gregory, director of Department of Health’s Water and Wastewater Services division, stated that Virginia updated its requirements 20 years ago. Last year’s bill directs the State Board of Health (the State Board of Health) to establish regulations that make Virginia the first state in the country to consider the impacts of climate change. Gregory stated that Gregory is aiming to not issue a permit to a system that, in 10 or fifteen years, will pose an environmental and health problem for the public and cost-prohibitive repair for the owner.

Lawrence is seeking solutions and has partnered with Rise, a Norfolk-based technology innovation accelerator. They are challenging Lawrence to design septic systems that can elevate much like HVAC systems. “Why aren’t we building our communities the way we did 100 years back, when Mother Nature isn’t working the same way today?” He said it didn’t make sense. “We have to reimagine and design our communities differently. If you can raise a heatpump, why can’t your $40,000 septic system?

William “Skip,” Stiles, a member of the non-profit Virginia advocacy group Wetlands Watch, was so concerned by the problem that he created an ad-hoc group of policymakers from Georgia to Maine to share their knowledge and discuss solutions.

He hopes that the group’s “noodling” about the issues, as it is called, will help inform new regulations. The solution to the septic issue may not be to improve technology and regulations, but to leave areas that are in danger.

Stiles stated that the septic system was the “canary in the coal mine.” If the septic system is flooding, it will be a matter of time before your house is destroyed. Septic failures should be used as an early warning system to help us identify areas where we will need to evacuate people.

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