August is the month of water quality, and Texans with septic tanks can help improve local water quality by making sure it is functioning properly.
Septic tanks? known as on-site sewage treatment plants or OSSFs? work like mini sewage treatment plants for Texans in rural or suburban areas who live too far away to be hooked up to a city’s sewer system. There are over 2.2 million known wastewater treatment plants in operation in Texas today. But they can also negatively affect local water quality and thus human health by spreading bacteria when they are not working properly.
Ryan Gerlich, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Program Specialist for AgriLife Extensions OSSF program, stated that design, placement, and general maintenance play a role in the proper functioning of the systems. What if the design of an OSSF doesn’t meet the needs of the people living in the household? for example if it is too small ?? it may not work properly. Placement also plays a role. Gerlich stated that prior to 1989 there were no statewide guidelines for installing OSSFs and that many systems were installed in places where they couldn’t function as they should.
?? If we put a conventional septic tank with a gravity fed drainage field in an area with high clay content or where there is a lot of rock or broken rock, the soil will not accept or treat the water at the rate that we apply it, ??? Said Gerlich.
?? Usually, when the system is faulty, the water comes to the surface and can drain into the nearby stream or body of water. ??
Problems can also arise when the water table is high in an area.
?? In this scenario, the system doesn’t offer much treatment as the wastewater is leaking out of the system and mixing with the groundwater right there. ?? Said Gerlich.
Physical damage to the system that causes leaks or events that cause overflows have a similar effect. Untreated or improperly treated wastewater ends up in the environment. Wastewater can transmit human pathogens that cause gastroenteritis and diseases such as cholera and typhoid, as well as affecting local water quality.
?? Many of the houses that are in a sewage treatment plant are also in a private water well. So if we don’t have the appropriate system for a particular soil, there is a chance that drinking water could become contaminated. ?? Said Gerlich.
Emily Monroe, an expansion program specialist at the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI) who recently worked with the OSSF Attoyac Bayou remediation project, raised similar concerns about household wastewater pollution.
?? If you have a wet patch on your property that never dries out even in a drought and your children or grandchildren are playing outside, is that human waste they are playing in? She explained. ?? This is 100% a major human health problem. ??
Constant stagnant water from an improperly functioning OSSF can also attract mosquitoes and give them a breeding ground. Mosquitoes are vectors of many diseases that can harm humans, pets, and wildlife, including dengue in humans, heartworm in pets, and West Nile virus in humans and animals.
Potential health effects resulting from OSSF-related water quality issues can also be carried downstream. Literally.
?? Do people use water for recreational purposes like boating and fishing? noted Nathan Glavy, extension program specialist at TWRI.
?? If the waste from an OSSF ends up in the local waterway, it can create great concern when you are eating or relaxing in the fish from the creek. It can cause some serious health complications, ??? he said.
Cost problems and possible financing
OSSFs that are not functioning properly should be repaired or replaced to protect local water quality and human and environmental health. Unfortunately, repairing or replacing an OSSF can be expensive. However, there are ways Texans can learn more about possible funding opportunities in their area:
?? Are you talking to your watershed coordinator? Watershed Protection Plans (WPPs) are designed to address degraded waters across Texas. WPPs for waters with bacterial pollution sometimes include means to solve OSSF problems. The watershed coordinator would know if there are any OSSF-related funds associated with a WPP and how to apply for them.
Or they could work with their watershed coordinator to write a scholarship and say, “Hey, we need help in this area.” Monroe recommended. ?? That would be a really good way to get money when there isn’t any. ??
Texans can find out if they live in a watershed with an active WPP and find the associated watershed coordinator by visiting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) Nonpoint Source Project Viewer.
?? Talk to the representative in your district. Much like a watershed coordinator, a county’s OSSF agent may be familiar with the funding options available within the county. Use this option to find your authorized representative Agent locator tool by TCEQ.
?? Can you reach the AgriLife Extension and AgriLife Extension agents? AgriLife Extension employees who specialize in OSSFs such as Gerlich may be able to help Texans identify potential sources of funding to address OSSF issues. Similarly, you can contact your local AgriLife Extension representative. Search here to find your local AgriLife Extension office and coordinator.
Other OSSF resources
“If you’re a private landowner with a wastewater treatment plant, you are basically running an entire wastewater treatment plant on your property.” Glavy said, calling education key to making OSSFs work properly.
AgriLife Extension, TWRI, and TCEQ all have good resources for homeowners who want to learn more about maintaining their systems and finding problem signs. Some selected resources include:
AgriLife Extension OSSF website
Factsheet 5227: Septic tank / soil absorption field (En español)
Factsheet 6077: Select and allow (En español)
Factsheet 6234: Living with an aerobic treatment unit and a spray field
OSSF information for homeowners from TCEQ
Pipeline: septic tanks and point water protection
TWRI ?? s septic tank maintenance and inspection manual
Despite the potential for problems, Gerlich said that having a properly functioning system is a great thing.
?? If the system is properly designed, installed, and maintained, it should have minimal to no impact on nearby bodies of water or groundwater. ??