Flooding, groundwater rise can have impact on septic systems

By Mike Loizzo

GAINESVILLE – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates the state has more than 2 million wastewater treatment plants. If an owner fails to maintain it properly, it poses an environmental threat to the state's drinking water. In addition to regular maintenance, dealing with the effects of flooding and groundwater rise are two other issues that owners must address. A new UF/IFAS publication explains the impact of these two phenomena on wastewater treatment plants.

Dr. Mary Lusk, assistant professor of urban soil and water quality in the UF/IFAS Department of Soil, Water and Ecosystem Sciences, is an author on the paper. She says the information is intended primarily for homeowners or renters who rely on a septic system, but it is equally valuable for state planners and policymakers.

“If you think of a wastewater treatment plant as a small, on-site wastewater treatment facility, you realize how serious its job is,” Lusk explains. “It collects everything you flush down the toilet, pour into the sink, into the shower and into the bathtub, as well as into the washing machine and dishwasher. The wastewater system has to process all of that, including harmful chemicals and disease-causing pathogens.”

Even vigilant property owners who follow all guidelines for proper septic system maintenance cannot predict environmental factors. Heavy rainfall from frequent storms or hurricanes, as well as rising water tables, can saturate the soil in your garden. This prevents the septic system drain field from functioning properly.

“Septic systems must be located in non-soaked soils and have adequate space between the bottom of the drain field and the groundwater surface,” Lusk noted. “That is typically at least 60 centimeters, or about 2 feet, to adequately remove pollutants and pathogens from wastewater.”

What should the owner of a wastewater treatment plant do if his property is flooded? Lusk makes several key recommendations in the publication for dealing with flooding and a sewer system, including:

• Reduce your water use until floodwaters recede.

• Avoid using heavy equipment over drainage fields.

• Do not open or pump septic tanks when the soil is saturated.

“If you also have a drinking water well on your property, the flooding likely resulted in contamination. So you should call your county health department and have the water tested,” Lusk added.

As groundwater levels rise, regular inspections and monitoring are critical to prevent wastewater treatment plant inefficiency. This is particularly true for coastal populations and areas exposed to sea level rise due to climate change.

“Climate change resilience requires collaboration between homeowners, professionals and local governments in septic management,” she said. “It is my hope that this publication, with the additional UF/IFAS information contained herein, will be helpful to those affected.”

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