Written by: Natalia Sanchez, Program Manager, University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center

What should a municipality do when an innovative management approach for private septic systems is needed? Did you know that more than one in five homes in the United States depend on septic systems to treat their wastewater? According to the Census Bureau, the distribution and density of septic systems vary widely from state to state, from a high of about 55% of properties in Vermont relying on septic to a low of about 10% of properties in California. In Barnstable County on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, septic systems are of concern to local water quality and public health. About 85% of the area’s properties use septic tanks.

Why the concern? Septic systems are underground structures that use a combination of processes to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, laundries, kitchen drains, etc. Septic tanks work effectively in rural areas where houses are spread out and there is space for large drain fields. But that’s not the case for Barnstable County. The County’s population has nearly quintupled since the 1950s – from 50,000 full-time residents to 230,000 today. And that doesn’t account for the millions of tourists that flock there each summer. Barnstable County is now too population-dense to treat all of its wastewater in residential septic systems.

View over Provincetown, Massachusetts toward East Harbor.
Image courtesy of iStock.com/AlizadaSt

When septic systems are located in population-dense coastal areas, sandy soils allow for easy leaching of nutrients into local waterways, so a higher level of treatment is needed than what traditional systems (a tank and drainfield) can do. This higher level of treatment can be done by innovative/alternative (I/A) septic systems which have an extra nutrient reduction component.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are two pollutants of concern to coastal communities. In oceanside communities, nitrogen-reducing I/A systems reduce algae blooms. These systems convert the nitrogen in wastewater into a harmless gas and keeps it out of water. In communities that are adjacent to freshwater, phosphorus-reducing I/A systems are of interest. The same way that nitrogen causes algal blooms in saltwater, phosphorus causes algal blooms in freshwater. These I/A septic systems work by binding phosphorus either to the soil or to filter media, keeping it in place and out of local waterways.

State and municipal health officials, planners, and environmentalists in Massachusetts have known of the pollution challenges they face from septic systems in Barnstable County for a long time. In 1999, the County began using EPA Section 319 funding to start the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center (MASSTC) to help Barnstable County meet its water quality and public health goals. The Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program Section provides federal funding for local nonpoint source pollution reduction efforts and supports a wide variety of activities including education, technology transfer, demonstration projects, and monitoring to assess the success of specific nonpoint source implementation projects. MASSTC now manages the first Septic Utility Program (SUP) of its kind dedicated to managing I/A septic systems. The same way a sewer utility manages a community’s wastewater treatment plant, a SUP supports septic systems by providing management assistance and ensuring they are functioning as they should. MASSTC’s SUP manages every aspect of the I/A system’s lifecycle, from permitting and installation to long-term operation and monitoring. By overseeing every aspect of the I/A septic system lifecycle, the SUP provides essential services to homeowners and regulators. Caring for these systems and collecting data on their performance provides confidence in the ability of this technology to be used as a tool to improve water quality.