There’s Nowhere to Hide Failed Systems in Coastal Georgia

New multi-county database makes it easy for concerned citizens and wastewater professionals to access a property’s septic system history.

There’s Nowhere to Hide Failed Systems in Coastal Georgia

  Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, the University of Georgia.

The coastal counties of Georgia have high water tables, and information about older onsite systems can be thin at best. For several years a program through the University of Georgia has been trying to end this information shortage, and now the end is in sight. With it comes a way for septic professionals to see where old systems are.

Sometime in 2021, the university should complete work on a database and map of all the septic systems in the 11 coastal counties, meaning either counties with Atlantic Ocean shorelines or counties adjacent to an ocean county. At least, the database will have information on everything that could be found, and that posed its own challenge, says Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant at the University of Georgia.

Building the database has been a slow process because it requires someone — sometimes a graduate student, sometimes a retired person or high school student — to visit each county clerk’s office and digitize every piece of information that can be found. To his knowledge, Risse says, no other place in the country has a database so complete. 

This information could be helpful in finding septic systems that were never permitted, not because they’re illegal but because the systems were already in the ground and were grandfathered under current codes.

“But if a system has been around that long, and it’s never been repaired, or there are no records of repair, it may be something of higher risk to the community or county,” Risse says. 


In most cases, county workers filed paperwork chronologically, he says. Some counties went back through old records and tried to sort them by geography or the name of the property owner.

“We were one of those counties that filed chronologically,” says Terry Ferrell, environmental health manager for Camden County, which is in the southeastern corner of Georgia and on the border with Florida. The county used several filing systems over the years until it joined a large database started by the state health department about seven years ago.

“We wanted to simplify that filing process. So now we file by county parcel number,” Ferrell says. That was a major improvement because parcel numbers won’t change. County workers went back through their records and matched what they found with parcels of land. Also, he adds, using parcel numbers allows onsite professionals preparing a job to call up information about neighboring parcels. That will show, for example, how soil types change across a section of the county.

The university database project has been valuable for finding records in the event of a repair or sale, he says. And because this information reveals what properties and sections of the county have old systems, it has helped the county win grants to repair or replace failing systems for about 40 residents, Ferrell says. 


Digging into the old records produced some surprises. There were a couple of places in particular, on the north end of the county, where no one knew how many septic systems existed, Ferrell says. There were no records, and all the onsite work was done before the current staff joined the county.

“The density was more than we thought. We thought there were one or two houses, but it was a whole small subdivision,” he says. 

He found one home from the 1950s, but it wasn’t clear whether the septic system dated from the same time. Another system he found was from the 1980s. 

The main advantage to having the map is being able to see system density at a glance, Ferrell says. In turn, that indicates areas that may be more susceptible to pollution. The county staff is talking about doing some outreach to citizens about system maintenance because unless there is a complaint or request for an inspection, he says, county workers don’t have reason to enter a property.


Doug Atkinson, a specialist in the university’s Marine Extension Service, came up with the idea of creating the database and coupling it with computer mapping so anyone could look up any property and see what was there, Risse says. 

“What’s really unique about it, and really shows Doug’s foresight and thought, is a lot of states have gone to an online permitting system and are entering new septic tanks into some sort of a database,” Risse says. But those projects aren’t capturing additional historical information.

Atkinson took another step, he says, and worked with tax assessors to include information about what might be on a property. He looked at aerial photos and tried to see what was on a piece of land, whether there was, for example, a house or only a chicken coop. Atkinson died in 2018, and Risse is carrying on the project he began. 

The seven-year-old state Health Department database has information about onsite systems and also sections on restaurant inspections, bacterial testing for wells, and other public health information, Risse says. Working with the South Georgia Regional Commission and the Department of Public Health, the team used a database called WelSTROM (Well and Septic Tank Referencing and Online Mapping) to compile its information. With permission, it connects to only the onsite portion of the state database. (Other sections of the state database contain private health information that is off limits.)


Anyone can access the WelSTROM database here:

Interconnecting the databases allows anyone to call up information from anywhere in the state. For the coastal counties, this means complete information because of the university project to document all onsite history. For example, Risse says, someone can search WelSTROM for all systems within 1,000 feet of a river, or for the number of septic tanks in a particular coastal county. Or you can open a map and zoom in and out, he says. 

Click on one of the green dots on the online map, and you can see the parcel number, address, owner, date of inspection if available, when a permit was issued and details about the system such as its design, tank capacities and drainfield design and size. 

Risse’s group has applied for grants to help teach counties what they can use the database for. One project, recently funded, will look for systems at risk of the sea level rise that is happening because of climate change. Properties with mound systems, for example, are automatically at risk because water tables were already high when the systems were installed, he says. 

What surprised him was who is making the most use of the data. He thought it would be county workers, but so far it’s private groups that monitor water quality, such as the Riverkeepers. These people know there are water quality problems and want to set up monitoring programs, and the database tells them what areas have concentrations of onsite systems, he says.   


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