By Maureen Tooke
When you think of infrastructure, you typically think of roads, right? But there is a hidden infrastructure we all tend to forget about since it’s underground: our drinking water and wastewater systems. Unless there’s a water main break or a septic system failure, people don’t tend to think much about them.
In my eight years working in EPA’s onsite wastewater treatment (aka septic) program, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about our nation’s water infrastructure. I’ve also learned a great deal about this country’s reliance septic systems, which treat wastewater onsite instead of sending it down the sewer to a treatment plant. About a quarter of U.S. households and a third of all new construction – both domestic and commercial – rely on these kinds of systems.
Today’s onsite systems aren’t like the one I grew up on. These advanced treatment technologies are able to treat wastewater to levels that protect the environment similar to traditional sewer systems. They’re also able to treat large volumes of wastewater from many homes through the use of cluster systems. As the nation’s population continues to grow, and as cash-strapped rural and small communities look for viable, effective methods to treat wastewater, septic systems will continue to play a critical role in our nation’s wastewater infrastructure.
Low-income and rural communities, especially in the South (with 46% of the nation’s septic systems), are particularly disadvantaged in terms of access to adequate wastewater treatment. This creates an environmental justice concern.
For homes with septic systems, proper septic system maintenance is vital to protecting public health and keeping water clean. When homeowners don’t maintain their septic systems, it can lead to system back-ups and overflows. That can mean costly repairs, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment.
To help raise awareness about the need to properly care for septic systems, and to encourage homeowners to do their part, this week we’re hosting the first SepticSmart Week, September 23-27. By taking small steps to maintain home septic systems, homeowners not only help keep their communities safe, but can save money and protect property values.
About the author: Maureen Tooke is an Environmental Protection Specialist who works in the Office of Wastewater Management at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. She lives across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, where she kayaks and bikes regularly.