Septic Systems, Climate Change, and a Looming Eco-Catastrophe

Millions of Americans can no longer take that flush for granted
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 17, 2022 4:00 PM CDT
Septic Systems, Climate Change, and a Looming Eco-Catastrophe
An alligator floats in an algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee near the Pahokee Marina, Monday, April 26, 2021. Similar algae blooms in the lake in 2016 and 2018 led to red tides on both Florida coasts when water is released from the lake in anticipation of hurricane season.   (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

For millions of American homeowners and their communities, the problem with septic systems is not just another seemingly distant threat due to climate change. It’s all happening right now; and, yes, it is projected to get worse. Per a detailed report by the Washington Post, rising sea and groundwater levels are causing sewage backups in homes, from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Coast. Besides backfilled toilets and stinky backyards, raw sewage is mixing with groundwater, threatening habitats and human health, plus widespread economic pain. The Post report focuses on two bays: Virginia’s Chesapeake and Florida's Biscayne. The former is one bad hurricane away from undoing decades of intensive effort to save the bay; for the latter, septic seepage from Miami-Dade is already creating devastating algae blooms in “America’s only underwater national park.”

American septic systems are not faulty; the problem is that they were built to standards of a time when precipitation and water levels were relatively static. In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, for example, groundwater levels are a full foot higher than in the 1980s; it doesn’t take that much to cause a septic tank to essentially flood and send raw sewage into the environment. Solutions are prohibitively expensive for most communities and/or homeowners. Seeking innovation, Lewis Lawrence of the Middle Peninsula Planning District in Virginia is working with Rise Resilience Solutions to develop raised septic systems. He told the Post that, because of environmental changes, "We've got to be reimagining and designing our communities differently." (Read the full story.)

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