Written by: Emma Grace Copenhaver, Project Analyst, UNC Environmental Finance Center

Image of a beach on Jekyll Island. Image credit: Jo Jakeman on Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Failed Septic Tanks: A Growing Water Quality Concern

Septic tank failure is a growing yet frequently underreported problem in the United States. A 2020 Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWMEA) report estimates that nearly half of the nation’s 21 million septic tanks do not function properly. The EPA estimates that 20% of US homes use septic tank systems and that 10-20% of them will fail sometime in their expected operational lifetime.

These failing septic systems can discharge pathogens (such as E. coli), nutrients, and other harmful substances directly into groundwater and surface water, leading to serious public health issues and environmental contamination. Repairs and replacements for septic tanks are costly and typically fall on the homeowner. The EPA estimates that major septic tank repairs and replacements can cost between $5,000 to $15,000, and even more for alternative systems or complicated replacements. Some municipalities, states, and national organizations offer grants and financing options for these repairs. Still, this funding assistance is only available in some places, and the terms of these programs can vary widely.

Homeowners can maintain their systems by having the system inspected every 1-3 years and pumping every 3-5 years to ensure they are running smoothly. Despite good septic practices, these systems do not last forever. EPA estimates that concrete tanks last about 50 years. The drain field may need replacement after 25-30 years due to accumulated bacteria in the biomat. Additionally, pumps and controls may need to be replaced even sooner, about every 10-20 years. Aging systems naturally have more issues than newer ones and require more frequent maintenance or, in some cases, full replacement.


Case Study: Jekyll Island, Georgia

In coastal communities, septic systems can pose an even more significant public health risk due to a shorter and less variable distance between the septic tank and the water table. Jekyll Island, Georgia, noticed several issues with existing septic systems in their community and undertook a hefty task: eliminating all septic tanks from the island.

This effort was possible partly due to the community’s unique governance structure. Privately owned until it was acquired by the state of Georgia in 1947, Jekyll Island is now part of the Georgia state park system. The state of Georgia owns all property and infrastructure on the island, which is governed by the Jekyll Island Authority (JIA), a board appointed by Georgia’s governor. In turn, the JIA appoints an executive director who oversees the island’s administrative operations.

As a part of the Georgia state park system, Jekyll Island maintains strict development and zoning regulations to protect the island’s unique coastal habitats and ecosystems. In 2018, the JIA completed a Carrying Capacity and Infrastructure Assessment recommended in its 2014 Master Plan. The report covered water and wastewater infrastructure on the island. Although most of the island’s structures were already connected to its centralized wastewater service, the carrying capacity report noted that 19 aging septic systems remained. The report recommended the removal of these septic tanks over time due to “the sensitive environment and . . . potential groundwater contamination.”

The JIA endorsed the carrying capacity reports recommendation, charging the island’s wastewater treatment staff with developing a long-term plan for removing the island’s remaining septic systems. This effort has been facilitated by the JIA’s ownership of all island septic tanks. However, the attempt to remove them has still been challenging. The wastewater treatment staff has strategically scheduled septic removals and centralized connections around existing construction and renovation projects, which helps them mitigate any disturbances they may cause to daily life on the island. Some removals have been easier than others. For example, wastewater treatment staff quickly eliminated a row of septic tanks in a transient housing complex. Still, efforts to remove 4 septic tanks on the island’s golf course have been delayed for years in anticipation of a significant course renovation, which is finally underway.

Many of these septic tank systems were constructed in the first place because of the geographic isolation of the structures they serve. Most were hundreds of feet from the centralized system and were built decades ago, making connections cost-prohibitive at the time of construction. Another issue was the technical challenge of extending gravity-fed sewer lines that far in a coastal environment. However, as part of their removal program, JIA staff has found a way to efficiently transport waste to their treatment plant through small grinder stations that put enough force on the wastewater to push it through the sewer mains.

Thanks to this technology and their strategic multi-year plan, 14 of the 19 tanks identified in the carrying capacity report have been removed so far. Because of the relatively small scale of this project, JIA staff has not yet noted any significant water quality improvements from the project. However, they report that their jobs are easier because they no longer need to service these decentralized septic tanks. And they have peace of mind knowing these systems do not threaten the island’s diverse wildlife, environment, or ecosystems.

While Jekyll Island’s septic removal program is unique, its proactive approach to community needs has significantly benefited the quality of its wastewater system and the quality of life for everyone on the island. Due to Jekyll Island’s governance structure, other wastewater systems may have trouble replicating their approach to septic tanks. Most septic tank systems are privately owned. However, other communities can take inspiration from Jekyll Island’s strategic, long-term plan to improve water quality and protect the environment. The problem of failing septic tanks in the United States is growing. Communities committed to addressing this issue through long-term planning, like Jekyll Island, will inevitably have safer water quality and healthier environments than those who don’t.


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