Septic Is the Future of Wastewater Treatment in Vermont

Strong homeowner education is crucial to safe groundwater in a state with access to few municipal treatment plants and a tradition and topography that favors decentralized treatment.

Septic Is the Future of Wastewater Treatment in Vermont

Contact Mary Clark at or 802-585-4890.

In Vermont, septic systems are the norm, not the exception. In fact, state officials estimate that about 55 percent of residential homes and commercial buildings rely upon onsite systems, according to Mary Clark, environmental program manager for indirect discharge and underground injection-control programs in the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division of the state of Vermont.

“That’s the highest rate (of septic system usage) reported in the entire country,” says Clark, whose division issues permits for and regulates decentralized wastewater systems, municipal water systems and potable-water systems. “There are only 94 wastewater treatment facilities in the state and 255 municipalities. That’s a lot of unsewered villages, towns and properties.”

This unusually high dependence on septic systems, combined with the state’s abundance of rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes, leaves state officials with more concerns about vulnerability to water pollution than many of their counterparts nationwide. As such, outreach programs that educate homeowners and businesses about septic systems and help them detect failing systems are extremely important, she says.

How exactly does the state of Vermont go about educating septic system users — and what role do pumpers play in that process? To get answers, we spoke with Clark about the division’s efforts.

Pumper: Why does Vermont have so many septic systems?

Clark: The villages and towns were established a long time ago and the terrain is very mountainous — lots of topography changes that make sewer installations difficult. The bedrock here is very shallow, too, so it’s not easy to run pipes from one community to the next to serve larger populations. It’s a big issue here because it constrains development.

Pumper: What’s the state’s biggest concern about septic systems?

Clark: We’re not worried about the design of systems installed today and during the last 20 years; they seem to function quite well. But those systems installed many years ago are at a higher risk for creating groundwater or surface-water pollution.

One of biggest concerns is that we have so many small camps (cottages) built on ponds in the 1940s and ’50s. Now many people are trying to convert them to heavier use — rental properties or full-time homes for residents. On the other hand, this kind of setup perhaps protects us, too, in that any pollution from wastewater systems is more dispersed because there’s not as much population density. 

Pumper: What is the division’s primary means of outreach and education?

Clark: We’ve developed a training program for camp owners that mirrors programs in the Puget Sound area (Washington state) and the state of Maine. We call them “septic socials.” We get a lake homeowner’s association to sponsor one and find a camp owner who’s willing to invite their neighbors over, where we show them their system and talk about water quality in the lake and how septic systems impact them.

It’s ideal if we can get a property with a newer system that features innovative and advanced technologies. If I also can get a service provider (pumper) to attend at the same time, it really helps the whole conversation — they really start to get it. We also try to do them at lake associations’ annual meetings.

Pumper: Are these socials well-attended?

Clark: I’d say we average about 15 to 25 people per event. If more people attended, we’d probably have to split them up in groups. We only do a handful of socials each year; it’s a fairly new initiative over the last few years, so I feel like we don’t do them often enough. It can definitely grow from where it is today.

Pumper: What else does the state do in terms of outreach?

Clark: We’re trying to tie the socials to a second initiative called Lake Wise (a program sponsored by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation). We mention Lake Wise at septic socials. The program provides lakeshore homeowners with technical assistance and advice about what they can do to make their properties more lake-friendly. To earn (a sign that designates the property as Lake Wise), the program evaluates things such as the amount of impervious surfaces on a property, number of trees and shoreline buffers, when septic systems were last upgraded or pumped out, and so forth.

If we can get just 15 percent of lakeshore homeowners to earn (the Lake Wise designation), we find we’ve kind of changed the whole community — it’s a tipping point for action. Homeowners can contact their lakes or ponds group to arrange an inspection. They also can give homeowners fact sheets and best management practices. We also get the word out through newsletters put out by the lake associations … let people know how many (Lake Wise designations) were issued to local camp owners.

Pumper: Any other messages you’re trying to get across to homeowners?

Clark: Another main message for homeowners would be to get their systems evaluated so they can plan ahead for repairs or system replacements. A lot of people just don’t think about their system. Or if they do, they just get worried about it because it can easily cost $20,000 for a replacement system, which is daunting to anybody. So it’s important to get someone out there to examine things ahead of time, just like getting a home’s roof inspected before it starts to leak. We’d like to see that same mentality applied to onsite systems.

Pumper: What role can pumpers play?

Clark: I’d like to see system designers and pumpers do more inspections for homeowners so they can plan ahead. The Granite State Designers and Installers Association offers a course to teach pumpers how to do inspections. I’d like to see designers better trained for evaluating onsite systems. In addition, I’d also like to see more homeowners be more proactive — ask for an inspection so they have a better understanding of what they have.

Educating people is so important. A while ago, I appeared on a Vermont Public Radio show, and later on, I received an email from a homeowner who investigated their system and tried to find the distribution box. As it turned out, it was broken, so they saved themselves thousands of dollars. … A simple repair to the piping saved them from having surfacing effluent and a public health hazard, or overloading water into the leachfield causing a hydraulic failure.

The more we can get people out there looking at systems, the better — and pumpers are very key to that because they’re the ones who are talking directly to homeowners. 


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