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Safe Septic Systems: a Key Component of Water Equity

Zoƫ Roller, Program Manager, US Water Alliance | September 11, 2020

The US Water Alliance is proud to join the EPA Decentralized Wastewater Management Partnership, a group formed to work collaboratively at the national level to protect the nation’s public health and water resources. The purpose of the partnership is to improve the overall performance and management of decentralized wastewater treatment systems, also known as septic systems.

Ensuring access to safe decentralized wastewater treatment is an important water equity issue. More than 20 percent of Americans use decentralized systems, many of them in rural areas that are not served by municipal sewer systems. While most of these households have access to safe, functional systems, some vulnerable communities do not. According to the census, approximately two million people in the US lack access to indoor plumbing, running water, or safe wastewater treatment. In regions like the rural south, Appalachia, and California, some low-income households pipe untreated wastewater into yards or streams. Households that cannot afford to install septic systems, or maintain the systems they have, face health issues caused by wastewater backing up in homes and yards. These wastewater challenges occur in many regions, from Alaska to New York, and affect primarily low-income people, communities of color, rural areas, and tribal communities. For these households, access to safe decentralized wastewater systems is key to protecting their health and wellbeing.

The Alliance began working to address this equity issue through our report published last year in collaboration with DigDeep, Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States. The report provided detailed findings on wastewater issues and offered policy recommendations to provide more equitable wastewater service access.

Today, the Alliance is bringing insights from our water access research and ongoing water equity work to the EPA Decentralized Wastewater Management Partnership to help kick off Septic Smart Week, a week of action focused on sharing resources and information about safe septic systems. The EPA offers a range of materials to educate homeowners on the importance of properly using and maintaining their septic system, and below are three reasons why we should do our part to be Septic Smart!

1.     Septic systems can be a cost-effective wastewater treatment solution for communities, as they have less capital and installation costs compared to centralized systems, require less expensive equipment upon installation, and are eligible for a variety of funding opportunities.

2.     Septic systems are an environmentally friendly wastewater treatment solution, as tailored designs can minimize their environmental footprint and replenish essential groundwater resources.

3.     Septic systems can protect public health and reduce health risks associated with untreated wastewater, as systems can filter potential pathogens, have safety measures to prevent sewage discharges, and can have additional treatment methods to reduce disease transmission.

For these reasons and many more, septic systems are a key part of ensuring that all communities have equitable access to safe, healthy wastewater services.