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America’s Septic System Failures Can Be Fixed

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Solutions require new thinking about wastewater treatment

septic tank decentralized wastewater treatment

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / TU Studio
Basic septic systems are no more than a tank to trap solid waste and perforated piping that allows the liquid to seep into the soil. Evidence of environmental pollution and disease outbreaks have led to calls to modernize America’s septic systems. Click image to enlarge.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

America’s septic systems are failing to protect human health and ecosystems from sickness and pollution.

Conceived as a low-cost, low-tech means of disposing toilet waste in rural communities without sewers, septic systems have become a leading cause of the toxic algae blooms that, like a rainbow cloak, drape across lakes, bays, and coastal shorelines on Cape Cod, Long Island, and small waterbodies in other states. As the top source of contamination for disease outbreaks from residential drinking water wells, septic systems also contribute to illness across the country.

The pollution of land and water is worsened by numerous factors: incomplete knowledge about the number and location of failing systems, old septic infrastructure that does not incorporate the latest nitrogen-removal technology, and an uneven application of pollution-reducing management practices.

In addition, changing environmental conditions will eventually produce new challenges. In wet regions, a warming planet may impair the soil’s capacity to cleanse liquid waste of microbial and nutrient contaminants.

In short, septic systems, used by one-fifth of U.S. households, mostly in New England, the Midwest, and the Deep South, need an upgrade.

“Septic has been successful for a long time, but we have to do better,” Joan Rose, director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment, told Circle of Blue. “We’re adding more people. Systems are aging. The climate is changing. We have a long ways to go in assessment of nonpoint sources of pollution.”

Solutions do exist, but they require new research, investments, and policies. In certain cases, sanitation experts call for a drastic shift from individual backyard units to water-recycling, waste-reusing neighborhood systems that are cheaper than sewer expansions and match the 21st century ethic of resource efficiency.

In general, for septic systems to protect human health and ecosystems, public officials must improve three main areas: data, oversight, and design:

  • Data — because authorities often do not have accurate maps of where septic systems are located or know where to target public funds.
  • Oversight — because inadequate maintenance and upkeep is the primary cause of system failure.
  • Design — because new technologies are required to remove nitrogen pollution and drive down costs.

Data: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Not all of the nation’s 21.5 million household septic systems are malfunctioning. Many are properly maintained and contribute little to local water pollution. The problem is that officials do not know where to draw the line between the good and the bad. Also, small amounts of pollution, insignificant when discharged by a few systems, develop into a serious problem as the number of systems in an area increases.

Data gaps begin at the top. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the number of septic systems nationally, but it stopped collecting data at the county level after 1980 because no federal agency regulates septic systems, according to spokeswoman Virginia Hyer. If they want detailed septic data, states and counties must collect it themselves.

A few are doing so. Georgia is developing WelSTROM, a GIS database of septic systems and drinking water wells, to help counties prevent water contamination. Data has been entered for 22 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

The Virginia Department of Health is using a bundle of economic, demographic, and septic data to identify “wastewater islands,” or areas with small lot sizes, no public sewer connection, poorly draining soils, older homes, and low household incomes. This combination of factors often indicates where septic systems are concentrated and at risk of failure.

“We’re looking at the environmental justice implications, where people have a lack of access to septic solutions,” Danna Revis, a training coordinator for the Virginia Office of Environmental Health Services, told Circle of Blue.

Revis said that the project, having started in the spring of 2015, is in its infancy, and she is not sure where it will lead. She hopes it helps the state pinpoint areas in need of public funding.

Oversight: New Rules Needed

Septic systems are not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. Counties and states are in charge of writing the rules that govern septic system siting, installation, and upkeep. That division of responsibility results in a hodgepodge of regulatory programs of uneven strength, according to Craig Mains, an engineering scientist who studies septic systems with the National Environmental Services Center (NESC).

Take nitrogen, for example. Twenty-five states regulate the release of nitrogen from septic systems, according to a 2012 NESC survey. Only four have statewide requirements. For the others, the rules apply only in ecologically sensitive areas. Nitrogen, converted into nitrate in the soil, feeds algae blooms that wreck coastal ecosystems. If consumed at high enough doses, nitrates contribute to blood disorders in infants. Basic septic systems remove only 10 percent of the nitrogen in wastewater.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does offer management guidance for local authorities. In 2003, the EPA published a set of voluntary guidelines for septic system oversight, identifying five basic management models that local agencies could adopt. The models form a spectrum. At one extreme is full reliance on the homeowner for repair and maintenance. At the other is the transfer of ownership of individual septic systems to local authorities which then assume responsibility for upkeep.

States with waterways in crisis because of nutrient pollution are taking steps to slash the amount of nitrogen coming from septic systems. Maryland, for example, passed the Chesapeake Bay Nitrogen Reduction Act in 2009, which requires the best available nitrogen removal technology be installed in new buildings and when old systems when are replaced. Other states could follow suit.

“Septic systems can work well if we give them proper care and treatment,” Theresa Connor, project development officer for Colorado State University’s One Water Solutions Institute, told Circle of Blue. “If we put them in the ground and ignore them, then we will have pollution problems.”

Design: Building a Better Tank

A basic septic system consists of a tank to trap solid waste and perforated piping to let the liquid percolate into the soil. In theory, soil microbes breakdown harmful bacteria and nutrients before they seep into groundwater, streams, or lakes.

Often that is not the case. Water-logged soil during wet periods prevents adequate treatment. Nitrogen is hardly removed at all. Over time, the soil’s treatment capacity diminishes as organic matter builds up.

Sewers are one solution, albeit an expensive one. Suffolk County, on Long Island, for instance, is spending $US 383 million from federal sources to connect just 10,000 homes in the most degraded watersheds to sewers. More than 1 million people use septic systems on Long Island, one of the densest concentrations of septic in the country.

But many suburban regions push back against sewer expansions, not only because of the cost. Some view them as a Trojan horse that will invite growth and development.

“The cost [of sewers] is high and the payback is low for utilities,” said Danny Johnson, manager of the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, which covers 15 counties and 5 million people in the Atlanta region. “There was the expectation that we would phase out septic systems in subdivisions but that has not happened. Homeowners say, ‘I can’t pay that’ and it doesn’t get done.”

Other observers see similar dynamics at play in suburban growth.

“There’s a disconnect between environmental health concerns and the construction industry,” Laurel Standley, principal at Clear Current, a water pollution consultancy, told Circle of Blue. “It’s a policy failure, to be frank. We don’t have groups talking to each other, and it’s difficult to control development pressures. Sewers are expensive and developers don’t want the upfront cost of putting in pipes. It makes it harder for the developer to sell the home.” In the end, they opt for septic, Standley said.

A second solution is to install better septic technology. Numerous options are available, from units that serve a single household to community systems. They are available, but not common. Florida, for example, has 3 million septic systems but only 17,000 with advanced pollution-removal technology.

Cost, again, is an obstacle. Residents will pay more for these systems, up to five times the cost of a basic septic tank. They are also more complicated and expensive to maintain.

The third option is decentralized, or clustered, systems. These are an intermediate step in scale between household units and a central wastewater treatment facility.

The town of Orleans, on Cape Cod, is experimenting with a community system to handle its nitrogen problem. The town is using a technology called “permeable reactive barriers,” which are screens filled with wood chips that are inserted into trenches downslope from septic systems. Think of an air filter in the ground that soaks up nitrogen.

The screens can stretch for hundreds of feet, trapping nitrogen from blocks of houses, and they are cheaper than traditional centralized treatment, according to Mike Domenica, an engineer at Water Resources Associates who is assisting the pilot study. “Compared to a traditional sewer system, they are a fraction of the cost,” Domenica told Circle of Blue. Orleans is one of five Cape Cod towns participating in an EPA-funded study of nitrogen-removing technology. The goals of the pilot studies are to assess the cost and effectiveness of the wood-chip barriers.

Clustered systems for neighborhoods are a “no-brainer,” according to Valerie Nelson, director of Water Alliance, a nonprofit working on alternative wastewater models. Some allow water to be recycled for lawns and flower gardens. Others recover the waste for biogas production or fertilizer, at a lower energy cost.

“More leading edge people are trying to figure out how to respond to other challenges — nutrients, energy, resource recovery,” Nelson explained.

This type of thinking is often branded as One Water — uniting drinking water, sewage, and storm drains into a circular system. These ideas are being embraced by the nation’s water utilities, which are pursuing water reuse and waste-to-energy projects with increasing frequency. The nation’s septic systems make be next in line.

The post America’s Septic System Failures Can Be Fixed appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.

Source: Water News

Source: Water Industry News

The Stream, December 21: Lawsuit Over Oil Spills In Niger Delta To Proceed

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The  Global Rundown

The Global Rundown

A lawsuit brought by farmers in Nigeria against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company will continue in the Netherlands following an appeals court ruling. South Africa’s capital city is imposing water restrictions, and the United States government is asking states in the Colorado River Basin to find solutions to a shrinking Lake Mead. Government officials in Chennai, India, are proposing to finance projects to resettle families living too close to rivers and waterways. Coal mining in Indonesia is polluting waterways and farms, according to farmers. Indonesia is expecting heavy rains, floods, and landslides next year due to La Nina.

“There are 6,000 kilometers of Shell pipelines and thousands of people living along them in the Niger Delta. Other people in Nigeria can bring cases and that could be tens of billions of euros in damages.”–Geert Ritsema, Friends of the Earth Netherlands director, on a decision by a Dutch appeals court that will allow farmers in Nigeria to pursue a lawsuit against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company in the Netherlands. (Guardian)

By the Numbers

By The Numbers

50,000 families Number living along the Adyar and Cooum rivers in Chennai, India, that government officials are hoping to relocate to alternative housing. Encroachment on waterways has been blamed for the severity of the city’s recent flooding. The Hindu

30 percent Chance of Lake Mead falling below a level of 310 meters (1,020 feet) in the next five years if climate change is taken into account. The U.S. Department of the Interior urged states in the Colorado River Basin to take action to keep the lake from declining to such low levels. Arizona Daily Star

20 percent Water savings goal that Cape Town, South Africa’s capital, hopes to accomplish by imposing water restrictions beginning January 1. News 24


Science, Studies, And Reports

Heavy rains, floods, and landslides are set to increase in Indonesia during 2016, according to the country’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency. La Nina, a global weather phenomenon linked to El Nino, is expected to drive the stronger precipitation patterns. Reuters

On the Radar

On The Radar

The coal mining industry in Indonesia, which has increased production five-fold since 2000, is harming rice harvests and aquaculture production through wastewater runoff and acid mine drainage, according to farmers. Large tracts of land, especially in Borneo, are being set aside for coal mining. Yale Environment 360

The post The Stream, December 21: Lawsuit Over Oil Spills In Niger Delta To Proceed appeared first on Circle of Blue WaterNews.

Source: Water News

Source: Water Industry News

Ocean Energy Becomes the Star in New NatGeo Episode

Ocean Energy Becomes the Star in New NatGeo Episode

If you’re a fly on the wall at the COP21 in Paris, you’ll probably hear the world leaders talk about natural gas, wind energy, and solar power. What you may not hear about is ocean energy. This isn’t really surprising since it’s a relatively new technology and isn’t as popular as other clean energy sources. However, if you take a close look, you’ll see that ocean energy may be one of the keys to reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and halting climate change.

This is what National Geographic wants the world to see, and it does so by making ocean energy a part of its “Breakthrough” series (which tackles next-gen innovations and technology). Specifically, it will be discussed in “Water Apocalypse”, the Breakthrough finale episode. In this episode, NatGeo will focus on Carnegie Wave Energy, a company that specializes in ocean energy and has successfully installed wave farms in Australia.

Carnegie Wave Energy made waves in the clean technology arena when it worked on the Perth Wave Project in partnership with the Australian government. The Perth Wave Project consists of three CETO 5 units that are installed off Garden Island, where HMAS Stirling (the largest naval base in Australia) is located. Unlike other wave energy generators (which have a buoy-type design and convert energy from surface waves), the CETO 5 are fully submerged. This allows them to tap into the movement of stable and predictable subsurface waves and ensures that they will not be affected by storms.

The Perth Wave Project has caught the attention of many clean technology advocates not only because of the positioning of the CETO 5 units but also because of how the entire system performs. Carnegie Wave Energy designed the system in a way that it provides electricity to the naval base and supplies it with high-pressure water to power a desalination plant. The latter is considered to be a huge step for science; traditional desalination processes requires a lot of energy, and experts have been looking for ways to reduce this energy demand or perhaps harness renewable energy to power desalination plants. With the Perth Wave Project system, desalination can take place without producing tonnes of emissions.

Two of the CETO 5 units were already in place in late 2014, and the third was installed in March 2015. The installation of the third CETO 5 unit is the subject of Water Apocalypse. Director Angela Bassett and her staff filmed the process, showing how the crew and engineers from Carnegie Wave Energy guided the massive buoy towards its target and prepared for anything that might go wrong during the installation.

Aside from featuring the Perth Wave Project, Water Apocalypse will also touch upon other innovations, including the dew-collecting bamboo tower in Ethiopia as well as the California desalination/water purification plant that’s powered by solar energy.

Water Apocalypse will be aired on NatGeo on December 13 at 9:00 PM EST. The finale, as well as the other episodes of its Breakthrough series, is a must-watch for any clean technology advocate and anyone who’s concerned about climate change.


Source: Green Tech News

Forest fires sweep northern Spain despite winter rain

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Reuters: Dozens of forest fires raged across northern Spain on Sunday after strong winds hindered efforts to keep them from spreading, forcing some homes to be evacuated in the worst-affected Asturias region.
More than 100 fires were still burning on Sunday morning in Asturias alone despite rain overnight in some areas, emergency services said.
Television pictures showed several rural houses destroyed by fire but officials said there had been no reports of casualties or damage to villages or towns….
Source: Waterconserve News

Source: Water Industry News

A million years ago, Greenland was ice free

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Environmental News Network: As the Arctic warms, Greenland’s fringe of glaciers is thinning and melting—but the future of the Greenland ice sheet remains a giant question mark. Until recently, that was also true of the ice sheet’s past: Scientists have long debated whether it might have shrunk away to nothing during Earth’s warmest periods. Now, a new study suggests that Greenland was entirely ice free at some point in the last 1.25 million years. “We should be worried about the Greenland Ice Sheet,” says Joerg Schaefer, a…
Source: Waterconserve News

Source: Water Industry News

El Niño Could Usher in a Decade of Stronger Events

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Climate Central: In Buffalo, early December meant breaking a 116-year-old record for a lack of snow. In Duluth, Minn., a newspaper reported that the temperature was 40 degrees above zero, not below. And in Miami, beachgoers stayed indoors during what had become the third-wettest December in local history, just eight days into the month.
What’s going on with the weather?
It’s the phenomenon called El Niño, which is happening now as ocean water temperatures rise above normal across the central and eastern Pacific,…
Source: Waterconserve News

Source: Water Industry News

Has the climate change deal really averted catastrophe?

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Al Jazeera: After years of fruitless negotiations, world leaders finally reached an agreement to combat climate change, agreeing to cap greenhouse gases in an effort to slow down global warming.
It was very interesting to see this mirror between what politicians were saying and what the media were saying. They all echoed a very similar narrative – they were using very, very similar terms, language, frames.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, or COP21, set a target of limiting carbon…
Source: Waterconserve News

Source: Water Industry News