In rural Virginia, sea level rise swamps septic systems. A local partnership is testing a solution.

On Virginia’s rural Middle Peninsula, Jamie Miller is the guy you call when something goes wrong with the least glamorous part of your home.

“‘I can’t flush my toilet. I have sewage backing up in my house,’” Miller said, listing off some of the typical calls he receives. “Or their yard smells like sewage, which wouldn’t be fun.”

A lifelong resident of Gloucester, Miller was born into the sewage business. He owns Miller’s Services, a plumbing company first started by his grandparents in the 1970s.

But in recent years, the nature of the work has changed. Many homes in rural regions of Virginia rely on standalone septic tanks to handle wastewater because they aren’t connected to a municipal sewer system. When he took over in 2001, Miller said, the business was usually called to maintain working septic systems.

Now, more and more septic systems are failing altogether, Miller said, flooding homes and yards with sewage that can threaten residents’ health and the local environment.

The problem lies underground.

Photo by Katherine Hafner

Jamie Miller, who owns Miller’s Services, at the pilot site in Gloucester in March.

As sea levels rise, groundwater levels are rising, too — an often overlooked but profound impact of climate change. Higher groundwater is swamping traditional septic systems, causing backups and failures.

Communities around the country are beginning to grapple with growing rates of septic failure. But southeastern Virginia is experiencing the highest rate of relative sea level rise on the East Coast, which makes places like the Middle Peninsula particularly vulnerable.

“There is a reason why the soil scientists and the septic industry calls it the septic repair capital of the East Coast,” said Lewie Lawrence, director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission.

Now, he and other local officials hope the region can also spearhead a solution.

At an abandoned waterfront home in Gloucester, a small startup is testing a reimagined septic system that officials hope could withstand rising waters.

The pilot project is part of a partnership between Lawrence’s planning commission, the state and multiple local nonprofits focused on building local climate resilience.

The area faces many impacts from flooding, including roadways that can become inaccessible during storms or high tide. But Lawrence said it’s obvious that “septic is the weakest link right now.”

“We were watching millions of dollars being poured back into septic systems that are putting the same technology into the ground that is failing,” he said. “That’s why we set off on this trajectory to say, there has to be a better mousetrap.”

Building “a better mousetrap”

On a cold, sunny morning in December, Tate Rogers and Aaron Forbis-Stokes stood outside a squat brick house in Gloucester while workers tore up chunks of dirt in the front yard.

They were working to dismantle an existing septic system and make way for something new.

Rogers and Forbis-Stokes work for Triangle Environmental, a research and development company based in North Carolina. They’re working to build a new and improved septic system, with an eye to the future.

“Our biggest goal with this system is pretty much to let people just to remain living where they live, even under the threat of changing climate conditions,” said Forbis-Stokes, Triangle’s research and development manager.

Aaron Forbis-Stokes and Tate Rogers with Triangle Environmental stand with their elevated septic treatment system prototype in December before it's installed at the Gloucester pilot site.

Photo by Katherine Hafner

Aaron Forbis-Stokes and Tate Rogers with Triangle Environmental stand with their elevated septic treatment system prototype in December before it’s installed at the Gloucester pilot site.

In a traditional home septic system, wastewater is carried from drains and toilets into an underground septic tank in the yard.

Inside the tank, heavy solids sink to the bottom. Everything else overflows into underground trenches and slowly trickles down into the soil, called the drainfield.

It’s usually not until the sewage hits the soil that it’s actually treated, naturally broken down by microbes and bacteria in the dirt.

But as groundwater rises, the drainfield can’t do its job. The soil becomes saturated, and is no longer able to absorb wastewater from the septic tank.

“It has to come to the surface, and then it just ends up running across the ground,” Miller said. “It ends up making your yard look like a big marsh.”

That marsh of standing water can contain bacteria that cause health issues like hepatitis and giardia. It also gets washed into and pollutes local waterways, threatening marine life.

Scientists believe about 6% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s total nitrogen pollution comes from failing septic systems, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Gloucester County is a hotspot, according to their 2021 analysis.

Triangle’s plan to fix the problem is simple. Instead of relying on the soil to treat sewage, add a middleman: an above-ground treatment system.

The company is now testing the idea at a small creekside property donated years ago to local authorities for public use. It’s not far from the Land’s End historic estate built by Revolutionary War privateer Capt. John Sinclair.

The prototype treatment system looks like a utility closet about the size of a refrigerator, and currently sits on a raised wooden platform alongside the test house.

In this new system, the first steps remain the same: Wastewater flows through pipes to an underground septic tank.

But then, instead of trickling directly into the drainfield, Triangle’s system redirects the sewage to the aboveground treatment box, where a mix of filters and chemicals disinfect the wastewater.

The result, the company hopes, will be water clean enough to be reused inside the home, for irrigation or even discharged into local waterways. It could also go back into the drainfield – but treated.

“It would look like very clear water that you can do pretty much anything with, except drink,” said Rogers, Triangle’s founder and principal.

Samples of wastewater before and after they're run through Triangle's pilot treatment system in Gloucester.

Photo by Katherine Hafner

Samples of wastewater before and after they’re run through Triangle’s pilot treatment system in Gloucester.

Ultimately, Triangle hopes to sell its new septic system to home- and business-owners – starting on the Middle Peninsula.

First, they’ll need approval from state regulators. The company doesn’t yet know how much the final system will cost an average homeowner, or how different it might look from the prototype.

In the meantime, Triangle is running the pilot in Gloucester through this fall.

To collect enough data, Triangle needs to run a lot of water through the system. So the company hired local Army veteran Nick Barnes to keep the home’s plumbing flowing. He’s taking the job seriously.

“If I have to use a bathroom or take a shower, I’ll wait and come and do it here,” Barnes said. “I started doing like my laundry here and stuff.”

Barnes first connected with the property through a local veterans’ nature therapy group called Knott Alone. Soon he’ll move into the house full time during the pilot project.

He also takes regular samples from the pilot treatment system, using a makeshift lab inside the home, to measure things like nutrient levels.

Barnes has been surprised by how much other people in the community are interested in the project.

“I was like, ‘who wants to talk about sewage?’’ he said. “But apparently everybody does.”

Nick Barnes, a local Army veteran hired by Triangle to help test the treatment system, takes samples in March.

Photo by Katherine Hafner

Nick Barnes, a local Army veteran hired by Triangle to help test the treatment system, takes samples in March.

‘Living with the water’

The pilot is part of a larger effort to explore solutions for the region. It was spearheaded in part by Lawrence, head of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission.

Lawrence grew up on an island in the Ware River along the Middle Peninsula. That “allowed me to touch and live with the water very differently than a lot of people,” he said.

Pretty much everyone in the region had at least occasional issues with septic backups, he said.

“There are times during the wet season, as children you’re taught, ‘don’t flush,’” he said. “That’s the unfortunate part of living with the water.”

Lawrence has now made it his priority to help the community adapt to rising waters.

That’s why he helped launch the new pilot project. It’s one element of an ongoing partnership that also includes the nonprofits Virginia Sea Grant and RISE Resilience Innovations in Norfolk.

Triangle was chosen through a RISE funding challenge focused on flooding solutions in rural Virginia. The company has received more than $500,000 for the pilot through a mix of state and federal sources.

It’s not the only company exploring alternative septic systems. Virginia already considers climate change in its septic permitting – the first state in the country to do so. And plumbers like Miller already work with alternative septic systems designed with sea level rise in mind. One model uses a manmade sand mound to elevate the drain field, for example.

But Lawrence hopes the pilot project will result in a more forward-thinking – and cost-effective – solution.

Septic systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace. A state program launched in 2022 to help low-income homeowners repair or replace well and septic systems was quickly overwhelmed by unprecedented demand.

Working septic systems are key to life in the region, Lawrence said.

If you can move the system aboveground, “now you’ve won the battle,” Lawrence said. “Now you’ve got the ability to say to people, ‘there’s a way to continue to live here.’”

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