About 53,000 on-site septic systems in Thurston County treat 13 million gallons of sewage each day. That’s more sewage than LOTT Clean Water Alliance, the area’s public utility, treats every day.
With all of that sewage, regular care and maintenance of individual septic systems is important to the health of our community. Thurston Thrives’ Environment Action team has identified proper septic system maintenance as a key strategy for providing safe and clean water.
Regular septic system care, including routine inspections and pumping, helps ensure that the systems are effectively treating sewage and are not adding bacteria and more to our lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water. When septic systems are not maintained, the costs can be significant to the homeowner, who has to repair or replace a failing system, and to taxpayers, who pay to clean up polluted drinking water, lakes, rivers and, eventually, the Puget Sound. Untreated sewage can even end up in surface and groundwater.
Septic systems that work properly can do a good job of treating sewage, but, like any other large investment, they require ongoing attention and routine maintenance. Regular inspections can find problems when they are smaller and easier to fix. Basic gravity systems benefit from inspections every three years; other systems such as pressure, sand filters or mound systems should be inspected every year to make sure all of the components are working properly.
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How often your septic system needs to be pumped depends on the size and type of the septic system, daily habits such as the types of cleaning products used (the less toxic, the better), garbage disposal use (not recommended), and the amount of water used in the home. Work with a septic professional to determine the best schedule for your household, and then stick to it to protect your investment, your drinking water and the health of our families.
Treated water from local septic systems eventually trickles into underground aquifers, which are the source of drinking water for most Thurston County residents. Toxic chemicals and materials flushed down the drain can be washed from the septic system drainfield by rain water. Failing septic systems also can contaminate wells and water supplies.
Failing septic systems also impact water quality in lakes, rivers, streams and Puget Sound. If left unchecked, poor water quality has the potential to impact our economy through lost revenue and jobs associated with shellfish and tourism.
In the early 2000s, two watersheds in Thurston County were listed as marine recovery areas in part because of concerns with failing septic systems and their impact on Puget Sound marine life such as shellfish. Whether you eat oysters or not, shellfish growing is a big part of our regional economy. The fact that shellfish were unsafe to eat indicated that water quality in Puget Sound was at serious risk.
If you are on a septic system and notice any of the following, contact a septic professional immediately to prevent further damage to your system and pollution of drinking water and surface water in your area:
▪ An odor around the septic tank or drainfield.
▪ Pooling water or surfacing sewage.
▪ Wet or spongy areas around the drainfield.
▪ Drains that are slow, loud or backing up.
Thurston County Environmental Health also provides a free septic helpline where you can ask a sanitarian questions and get help over the phone at 360-867-2669. And there are two open houses in December to get more information as the county updates its septic maintenance plan: 9:30-11 a.m. Dec. 5 at the Public Health Building, 412 Lilly Road, and 6:30-8 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Rainier Sportsman Club, 404 Alaska St. The plan will be explained, and you can learn how it affects you.
See the county’s website at co.thurston.wa.us/health/ehoss/index.html for more information on how to track down your records, find certified professionals and get details on upcoming workshops.
Dr. Rachel C. Wood is the health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, co.thurston.wa.us/health, @ThurstonHealth on Twitter, or facebook.com/ThurstonHealth.