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WaPo claims: ‘Climate change is wrecking septic tanks’ – ‘Backed-up pipes, stinky yards’

By Jim Morrison

Lewis Lawrence likes to refer to the coastal middle peninsula of Virginia as suffering from a “soggy socks” problem. Flooding is so persistent that people often can’t walk around without getting their feet wet.

Over two decades, Lawrence, the executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District, has watched the effects of that problem grow, as rising waters and intensifying rains that flood the backyard render underground septic systems ineffective. When that happens smelly, unhealthy wastewater backs up into homes.

Local companies, he said, call the Middle Peninsula the “septic repair capital of the East Coast.” “That’s all you need to know,” he added. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

As climate change intensifies, septic failures are emerging as a vexing issue for local governments. For decades, flushing a toilet and making wastewater disappear was a convenience that didn’t warrant a second thought. No longer. From Miami to Minnesota, septic systems are failing, posing threats to clean water, ecosystems and public health.

About 20 percent of U.S. households rely on septic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many systems are clustered in coastal areas that are experiencing relative sea-level rise, including around Boston and New York. Nearly half of New England homes depend on them. Florida hosts 2.6 million systems. Of the 120,000 in Miami-Dade County, more than half of them fail to work properly at some point during the year, helping to fuel deadly algae blooms in Biscayne Bay, home to the nation’s only underwater national park. The cost to convert those systems into a central sewer plant would be more than $4 billion.

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy estimates that 24 percent of the state’s 1.37 million septic systems are failing and contaminating groundwater. A project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is examining the potential longer-term impacts of climate change on septic systems in the Carolinas. Virginia has created a Wastewater Infrastructure Policy Working Group to address the issue.

An EPA spokesman said the agency didn’t have a report on the septic problem but noted that sea level rise, changing water tables, precipitation changes and increased temperature can cause systems to fail. The infrastructure bill passed last year provides $150 million to replace or repair systems nationwide.

For a century, conventional septic systems have been an inexpensive solution for wastewater. They work by burying a tank that collects wastewater from sinks, toilets, showers and washing machines, holding the solids while the liquid percolates through a few feet of filtering soil, where microbes and other biological processes remove harmful bacteria.

When that doesn’t happen, bacteria and parasites from human waste flow into drinking water supplies or recreational waters, creating a public health problem. Nitrogen and phosphorous, also a byproduct of the waste, pollute waters, creating oxygen-depleted zones in rivers and along the coast, closing shellfish harvests and killing fish.

On Virginia’s low-lying Middle Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay, the Rappahannock River and the York River, Lawrence has had a preview of the effects of climate change and the challenges to septic systems. Failing to address the problem, he said, could eliminate decades of environmental progress.

“You’re sitting on all of the work for the last 30 years to clean up the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. One or two good hurricanes will destroy that because every residential home will become a brownfield because their septic tank is just sitting there full of bad stuff.”

Now, even those alternative systems are failing. Why? They don’t handle flooding well and flooding happens often on the Middle Peninsula.

He hopes the group’s “noodling” on the issues, as he calls it, will inform new regulations. In the end, the answer to the septic problem may not be to improve the regulations and the technology, but to leave threatened areas.

“The septic system is the canary in the coal mine,” Stiles said. “If you’ve got a house and the septic is starting to flood, it won’t be long before the house goes. We ought to be using septic failures as an early warning system for those areas we’re going to have to take people out of.”