HRWC and a team of researchers and public health managers are pursuing an innovative approach to detect failed septic systems that may reduce pollutants entering the Huron River and yield a cost-effective approach for county health departments to monitor and rectify problem septic systems.
What is the Problem?
Pollutants from failing septic systems — pathogens and phosphorus — play a role in the health of the Huron River and its tributary streams located in rural areas. In fact, one of the more perplexing questions about water pollution in this river has been “how much of a problem are failing septics?” Preliminary work by HRWC and others shows that, potentially, the highest concentrations of phosphorus entering the middle Huron (where a TMDL mandates phosphorus reduction) are from failing septic systems.
Septic systems are essential to rural living. Communities have standards for their design, construction, and, increasingly, maintenance. Yet, even with those standards, septic systems can fail. When a septic system fails, the polluted water it releases can pose a human health risk, an expensive repair and a water quality problem for groundwater, streams and lakes.
HRWC is conducting a 3-year research study that proposes an innovative use of existing technology to help save money and protect homes and freshwater resources from the pollution caused by failing septic systems.
The study tests the use of infrared and thermal aerial photography to predict the functional status of septic systems (also known as onsite sewage systems). A goal is to help homeowners extend the life of their septic systems or correct a failing one by providing specific recommendations and information on proper operation and maintenance.
Year 1 focuses on developing a map that shows the probability of septic failures within Washtenaw County, with emphasis on three townships in the middle Huron River watershed. Site visits are underway this fall for the field verification phase of the research.
In Years 2 and 3, HRWC will design, implement and assess an education campaign for households in high probability failure areas. HRWC also will monitor E. coli and phosphorus in Mill and Honey Creeks in areas where system failure and proximity to surface waters allows for comparison of conditions before and after system corrections.
The consultants’ report describing the methodology employed is now available for download.
Tips & Tools
Brush up on septic system ABCs and learn ways that you can take action to get the most out of your septic system’s life.
Contact Project Manager Elizabeth Riggs for more information.