Rainy days: from sprinkles to storms | Guest Column

Standing water on your property: understanding the causes and possible solutions  - Journal file photo
Standing water on your property: understanding the causes and possible solutions
— image credit: Journal file photo

What is storm water and why does it matter to you? San Juan County Surface and Stormwater Assistance Program offers a series of articles that describe how rain water drains onto or off your property. The series began (March 12) with a description of stormwater and services the assistance program provides, followed by causes and solutions to seasonal standing water, how to identify and address septic system failure, manage pastures for healthier livestock and improved water quality, and what we are finding in the water running off our land and into our marine waters.


By Mark Tompkins, San Juan County Health and Community Services

Special to the Journal

What do on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems have to do with storm water?

Storm water and on-site sewage systems are linked in many ways. Improperly routed storm water can flood a drain field, causing the system to fail; failing or inadequately functioning on-site sewage systems can contaminate surface and storm water, and a curtain drain used to protect an on-site system can overload a storm water system.

These are just some of the links between storm water and on-site sewage systems.

As most people know, the majority of island residences are served by on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems. A typical 3-bedroom on-site septic system will treat and dispose anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 gallons of wastewater per year. On-site septic systems provide excellent wastewater treatment.

A well designed, constructed, operated and maintained on-site sewage treatment and disposal system should be able to perform its intended functions for the lifetime of the dwelling. Performing necessary, routine maintenance is essential to enable systems to perform trouble-free for many years.

However, systems that exceed the treatment capacity of the soil and/or are poorly designed, installed, operated or maintained can fail, causing public health concerns. The most serious public health concerns involve contamination of surface water and ground water with disease-causing organisms.

So, how do you know if your on-site sewage system is failing? The term "failure" means a condition where the on-site sewage system does not adequately treat the sewage or by creating a potential for the public to come into direct contact with sewage. Examples and signs of a failure include:

1) Sewage on the surface of the ground. Signs include effluent ponded over a drain field; effluent seeping out of the ground below the drain field; or effluent discharging directly into surface water or onto the ground via a pipe. This includes “grey water” (i.e. waste-water from kitchen sinks, bathtubs, washing machines, etc.) discharges. Typically the “effluent” will have an odor and will be slightly cloudy.

2) Sewage backing up into your house. This may initially start with sinks and bathtubs draining slowly with sewage eventually backing up into the fixture with the lowest drain (e.g. bathtub).

3) Sewage leaking from the septic tank or pump chamber. This type of failure may not be readily apparent on the ground surface but would be identified during a maintenance inspection. Typical signs of a leaking tank would be effluent levels below the outlet baffle.

4) Sewage contaminating ground water or surface water. These types of failures are difficult to identify and are generally only discovered by water quality testing.  An exception is sewage effluent discharging into surface water from a pipe or other conduit.

Failing systems are a significant public health hazard that can contaminate surface water and ground water with disease-causing organisms.

Fortunately, help is available to assist property owners in reducing the risk of an on-site sewage system failure. Technical assistance is available from the Stormwater Assistance Program to help with operation and maintenance of on-site sewage system or storm water run-off to prolong the life of the system.

There are videos and brochures available describing how on-site sewage systems function, what materials are appropriate be put down the drain, types of materials that should never be introduced into the system and other useful operation and maintenance tips.

Finally, in the untimely event of an on-site sewage system failure, there is financial assistance available to help with necessary repairs.

San Juan County Health & Community Services has a low-interest loan program that provides funds at a low interest rate to repair failing systems. Technical and financial assistance is available from the Surface and Stormwater Assistance Program (SSWAP), at no cost, to help you consider ways to address your on-site sewage treatment needs. You can contact a member of the SSWAP team at:

SJC Health and Community Services; 378-4474, or visit,

http://sanjuanco.com/health/ehswaste.aspx; SJC Public Works; 370-0500 or visit http://sanjuanco.com/publicworks/stormwater.aspx. Coming soon: Look for Part 4 of our series: “Got muddy pastures? We can help: managing stormwater on agricultural land.”


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