Hell and high water: Diminished septic system performance in coastal regions due to climate change

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Climate change may affect the ability of soil-based onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) to treat wastewater in coastal regions of the Northeastern United States. Higher temperatures and water tables can affect treatment by reducing the volume of unsaturated soil and oxygen available for treatment, which may result in greater transport of pathogens, nutrients, and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) to groundwater, jeopardizing public and aquatic ecosystem health. The soil treatment area (STA) of an OWTS removes contaminants as wastewater percolates through the soil. Conventional STAs receive wastewater from the septic tank, with infiltration occurring deeper in the soil profile. In contrast, shallow narrow STAs receive pre-treated wastewater that infiltrates higher in the soil profile, which may make them more resilient to climate change. We used intact soil mesocosms to quantify the water quality functions of a conventional and two types of shallow narrow STAs under present climate (PC; 20°C) and climate change (CC; 25°C, 30 cm elevation in water table). Significantly greater removal of BOD5 was observed under CC for all STA types. Phosphorus removal decreased significantly from 75% (PC) to 66% (CC) in the conventional STA, and from 100% to 71-72% in shallow narrow STAs. No fecal coliform bacteria (FCB) were released under PC, whereas up to 17 and 20 CFU 100 mL-1 were released in conventional and shallow narrow STAs, respectively, under CC. Total N removal increased from 14% (PC) to 19% (CC) in the conventional STA, but decreased in shallow narrow STAs, from 6-7% to less than 3.0%. Differences in removal of FCB and total N were not significant. Leaching of N in excess of inputs was also observed in shallow narrow STAs under CC. Our results indicate that climate change can affect contaminant removal from wastewater, with effects dependent on the contaminant and STA type.




Cooper, J. A., Loomis, G. W., & Amador, J. A. (2016). Hell and high water: Diminished septic system performance in coastal regions due to climate change. PLoS ONE, 11(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162104

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