Healthy Septic Systems, Healthy Streams

Hey Water People!

One of the central water quality issues throughout Kentucky’s waterways is bacterial pollution or pathogens.  How do we get bacteria in our water, like E. coli, or fecal coliform?  In most instances, those bacteria originate from human and animal waste [Yes, that means that human and animal waste exist in many of our waterways, to varied extents].

Many of our cities and larger towns often have multiple wastewater treatment plants or sewage treatment plants that use various process to clean wastewater from our homes.  The “cleaned water” may still contain various pollutants but at levels considered to be protective of human health.  Occasionally, those facilities will have failures or bypasses that may cause raw sewage to be released into our streams.  These events can cause unacceptable levels of bacteria in our waterways.  Those events are generally rare.

But what about rural areas?


The overwhelming majority of folks that live in rural areas and small rural towns have septic systems to handle their household wastewater.  It’s simply too expensive to run sewer line to them from cities.  In fact, according to University of Kentucky Extension Office, roughly 40% of Kentucky homes run on septic.  Because so many folks are on septic systems, it then becomes critical for that segment of the population to sufficiently maintain their systems.  Why?

Well, poorly maintained septic systems are a major problem.  First, if a homeowner has not had their septic system pumped out regularly (every 3-5 years), then it probably is full and not functioning optimally.  Second, septic tanks don’t last forever.  If a septic tank has been in the ground for decades and never pumped or maintained/repaired, it’s probably failing.  This means the tank is likely full and that the waste in the septic tank and field is likely not being broken down and it is probably affecting the environment (and maybe residents).

Failing septic systems can be noted on the surface by standing water or very wet soil over the septic field or tank area, and noticeable smell of sewage.  The bacteria within the septic tank is likely rising to the surface, and then during rain events, it gets washed off the land into the nearby creek.  A failing system can also cause groundwater issues and localized drinking water sources issues, especially for homeowners that are located downslope from failing systems.

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Rates of septic failures are difficult to determine, largely because homeowners often don’t know or avoid answering surveys about their system for fear of fines.  Some surveys have suggested that roughly 20% of systems in any one location are in a state of failure.  That is roughly one in every five homes in rural areas, and approximately one in every eleven homes across the state when including urban areas.

Certainly, it’s the homeowners responsibility to maintain their system.  Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t have a grasp of what that actually entails, and many don’t budget for the necessary expenses to maintain their system.

As part of our Watershed Planning work, we are working in Bacon Creek (Hart County) and Darby Creek (Oldham County) watersheds to deal with septic system issues.  We have a grant from Kentucky Division of Water to provide cost-share support to homeowners in need of septic system pumpouts, repairs, or replacements.  Residents in those watersheds can go through us and get huge savings on septic maintenance needs.

We don’t just advocate for sufficient protections for our waterways.  We are actively working with citizens to improve the water quality in our polluted streams.

Help us grow by spreading the word about our Watershed Planning work, as well as our Advocacy and Stream Cleanup events. Thanks!

Be #SepticSmart! If you want more information on septic systems, check out EPA’s Septic System Materials.