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Septic Systems Have Large Impact on Ecosystem Health - January 31, 2016

Everyone loves to read about seals, manatees, sharks, and even the Portuguese man o’ war. If it appears cuddly or deadly, we are fascinated by it. This article is about a potential danger that is absolutely unattractive but is one of the biggest problems facing the coastal bays and you may be completely unaware of it.

Septic systems, also known as Onsite Sewer Disposal Systems (OSDS), are a necessary part of life for homeowners not on public sewer. As necessary as septic systems are, they also have a large impact on our local water quality. There are more than 5,000 septic systems in Worcester County, which treat approximately 1,500,000 gallons of raw sewage each day. Our highly porous soils allow for excess nutrients from failing septic systems to pass directly into the coastal bays. The amount of nitrogen from septic systems going into the coastal bays is significantly higher than other areas because of the region’s sandy soils, high water tables, and the large percentage of watershed residents on septic due to living in rural areas.

Why should we be concerned about nitrogen in our groundwater? It can have an impact on both our health and our environment. Nitrogen is a necessary nutrient for all living things, but as we all know, we can have too much of a good thing. Excess nitrogen that reaches the coastal bays promotes the growth of excess algae. Excess algae can cause the unsightly green colored water or mats of floating macroalgae that can clog our waterways. When the algae dies, it turns into decaying matter that uses up oxygen, which can then make it very difficult for clams, crabs and fish to live,. Nitrogen rich water can be bad for human health too. It can cause methemoglobinemia which is also known as “blue baby syndrome”. This disease is very rare and is caused by nitrates limiting the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. “Blue baby syndrome” can occur at nitrate concentrations as low as 10 mg/l and generally affects the very young and very old. Bacteria may also potentially contaminate the water near failed septic systems, including your drinking water if it is from a nearby well.

A small septic system leaches, on average, 10.6 pounds of nitrogen and 0.7 pounds of phosphorus into the groundwater annually. Nitrogen reducing septic systems contribute only half this amount. Nitrogen reducing septic systems work by placing an advance pretreatment tank that uses aeration or recirculation to allow bacteria to consume the nitrogen and convert it to a harmless gas. (About 78% of the air we breathe is nitrogen. Unfortunately, nitrogen behaves very differently in the air than in water.) Homes connected to a wastewater treatment plant may contribute only a quarter as much nitrogen to the groundwater as does a traditional septic system.

Sometimes connecting to a wastewater treatment plant is not an option. Many people live on the Eastern Shore because of its rural nature and are willing to undertake the upkeep of a septic system. If you fall into this category, knowing how to take care of your septic system can help protect the environment (often the immediate environment of your yard and groundwater) and can save you money over the long term.

So what can go into a septic system? Septic-safe toilet paper and of course, human waste are the two things that can safely go into a septic system. That’s it. Kitty litter, diapers, baby wipes, paints, toxic household cleaners labeled with warnings, and anything else should never be flushed without risking a failed system. The larger objects can clog your system while the stronger chemicals can kill the bacteria that cause the system to work. The amount of water that goes in a system also effects its functioning, so try not to run dishwashers and wash clothes at the same time. You should have your septic system inspected every three years and pumped out as recommended- usually every 3 to 5 years.

If you need help to upgrade or replace your failing septic system, the Bay Restoration Fund may be able to provide assistance. Failing systems in the Critical Areas, which are within 1,000 feet of average high tide, are prioritized. The priority listing and information on how to apply for these grant funds is listed at http://www.co.worcester.md.us/ep/BRF-Grant.aspx.

No one wants to think about their septic system. Take good care of it and you won’t have to. To help make caring for your septic system easier, Maryland Coastal Bays Program is hosting a free seminar on septic systems Thursday, February 4th at the Bishopville Fire House, beginning at 6 p.m. Jennifer Dindinger, Regional Watershed Restoration Specialist to the Sea Grant Extension Program, will be leading the seminar. The Maryland Sea Grant Extension program specialists focus on finding practical solutions to problems that affect Marylanders. They help communities improve the quality of their water. They also assist seafood businesses with developing new and profitable products and draw on the best scientific research and analyses available to inform the sound conservation and business practices we share. By reading this article and maintaining your septic system you have helped protect the coastal bays. You deserve to look at cuddly animals. Now go find a picture of a seal.


The Maryland Coastal Bays Program is a 501 C 3 non-profit; your donations make it possible for us to continue our work of protecting the coastal bays and are tax deductible.

Rafter is the Technical Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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