On-site septic gains ground in respectability
Alternative systems offer choices for difficult home sites

(University of MN NRRI press release)

With a headcount of around five million people in Minnesota and each of us typically using 75 to 100 gallons of water per day, it's critical that we're careful about where our drains and flushes go.

Figuring out how to treat wastewater isn't a new problem, but it is getting some new attention and invigorated solutions from the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) University of Minnesota Duluth for on-site septic alternatives. It's about time. Statewide around 25 percent of us use on-site septic systems for our homes. In Northern Minnesota about half of the homes use on-site systems, and even 80 percent in some counties. That number is growing. Over 30 percent of all new construction homes are built with on-site systems. Here in the land of 11,842 lakes, Minnesotans have an important responsibility to keep the water we live near, play in and drink from clean. We also have an abundance of groundwater to protect. Different soil types, geographic conditions and population densities require different treatments. The wrong system in the wrong place can degrade our lakes, streams and groundwater and can potentially endanger public health.

"We want people to know that there are effective and less expensive alternatives to the 'big pipe' sewer system," says NRRI researcher Barb McCarthy. "We can treat wastewater in areas that are impossible for standard trench septic systems. Difficult sites don't have to be at high risk for wastewater pollution."

NRRI teamed up with local industry as well as state and federal agencies to put alternative wastewater treatment systems to the test, and they've learned a few new tricks for this old trade. McCarthy and a team of researchers installed nine alternative systems for side-by-side comparison at a test site near Duluth. Then they worked those systems hard to see how well they hold up year-round in Minnesota's harsh climate.

"This research is so important right now, but it also means change and that's hard for people," said McCarthy. "In the past we've just tried to keep the raw sewage underground, but that was in the 40s and 50s when we had rural populations with low densities. We really need better options today."

The federal government is catching on, too. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing a national strategy to address "decentralized" (on-site septic, as opposed to centralized sewer) systems. In a recent report, the EPA acknowledged that decentralized systems are permanent, effective components to the wastewater infrastructure. They're also admitting that there's a lot of work to be done.

"We do have some problems to address with on-site systems," said Joyce Hudson, environmental engineer for the U.S. EPA in Washington, D.C. "Ten to 15 percent of them are failing, and upwards of 25 percent in some areas. That's why the EPA is getting involved with this on a national level. We'd like to see a much more consistent, comprehensive approach taken with on-site system options."

The biggest problem is with regular maintenance. Homeowners aren't always operating and managing their systems correctly. And around half of the systems in place are over 30 years old, increasing their likelihood to be failing. A new management guide put out by the EPA has five different model programs that communities can adopt to manage their on-site systems. The programs range from simply sending reminder cards for system checks homeowners, to turning over ownership and responsibility for all on-site systems in the community to a utility.

"We have some challenges ahead, that's for sure," said McCarthy. "But most important is getting the word out to the public to install the right system for their home and businesses and to keep up with the maintenance. Our water is valuable. If we can treat it effectively, we can recycle it back into the environment, where it belongs."