At the turn of the century, there were some very large community septic tanks. In 1903, four community tanks were constructed in Saratoga, N.Y., with a total capacity of one million gallons.
By 1920, septic tanks began to be a common feature. After World War II, septic tanks became important to housing developments in unsewered areas.
Cherokee County is still quite rural and many people, like me, are on wells and septic systems. Septic systems are a combined tank and drain field used to treat and dispose of residential wastewater. They’re relatively simple and can work effectively to filter out many contaminants. However they don’t do a good job of removing nitrates, which are very soluble and often find their way into the groundwater.
Nitrates are a direct risk to human and livestock health if levels reach high concentrations in drinking water. In surface water, much lower levels of nitrogen and phosphorus can trigger algae blooms, loss of water clarity and reductions in dissolved oxygen that can be detrimental for fish and other aquatic life.
Many people don’t understand that surface and groundwater aren't separate, but instead consist of the same water circulating through the hydrologic system. We have strict regulations that protect us from dangerous levels of nitrates in groundwater that can affect our health. But the allowable levels of nitrates and other nutrients that can damage our sensitive rivers and lakes are much lower.
Current regulations do not address the strain put on our rivers and lakes when they have to absorb pollution from hundreds of new septic systems. Discharges from sewage can be a problem but they are not always a dire health emergency if addressed quickly. Water bubbling up from a septic tank site must be taken care of at once.
If you have a septic system and don’t know where your underground septic tank and field are located, you may try contacting the Cherokee County Environmental Health Office at (770) 479-0444. They may have initial inspection records for your property, but if your home was built before 1970 the records may be incomplete or not there at all. In that case, contact a company that pumps sewage and they will find it.
Here are a few tips to keep your septic system flowing and avoid contamination:
n Don’t plant trees over the tank or lines. Willows and Maples are particularly known for having water seeking roots which will clog field lines.
n Don’t put a patio or any structure over the tank because sooner or later you will need to get to it.
n Don’t regularly drive across the tank. Definitely don’t put a driveway over it as it will compress the soil and hamper operation.
n Do not pour cooking greases, oils, and fats down the drain. Grease hardens in the septic tank and accumulates until it clogs the inlet or outlet. Grease poured down the drain with hot water may flow through the septic tank and clog soil pores completely.
n Pesticides, paints, paint thinners, solvents, disinfectants, poisons and other household chemicals should not be dumped down the drain into a septic system because they may kill soil microorganisms that help purify the sewage.
Also, some organic chemicals will flow untreated through the septic tank and the soil, thus contaminating the underlying groundwater.
n There are no products that have been shown to improve septic tanks and some may be detrimental by killing the good bacteria there. There are no additives for septic tanks approved by the state of Georgia.
For more education and guidelines on installation and care of septic systems in Georgia, visit www.ehso.com/State_GA_EnviSewage.htm.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.