As sea level rise accelerates along the Chesapeake coast, an old threat to Virginia’s water quality may be rearing its head.Like many places in the Chesapeake region, coastal areas of Virginia are experiencing wetter weather and increased flooding, as well as rising sea levels. Saturated soils can compromise the operation of septic systems and increase the chance of pollution in nearby waterways. Here, waters rise from the York River at Gloucester Point, VA. (P. Lynch/Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

Failing septic systems have been a perennial problem in the commonwealth — one that led a soil scientist working on the Middle Peninsula to once christen Virginia the “septic repair capital of the East Coast.”

And when septic systems fail, pollution follows. Leaks can send sewage into groundwater and surface water, creating risks for human health and pollution in the Bay and its rivers.

Now, with sea level rising and land continuing to subside, the historical threat has taken on new urgency, particularly in the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore of Virginia. Largely rural and separated by both land and water from the state’s metropolises, all of these regions rely heavily on septic systems to meet their residents’ sewage disposal needs — and they will be some of the first to see the impacts of rising waters.

“These systems were not built to be able to withstand flooding,” said Del. Keith Hodges, R-98, who since 2012 has represented much of the Middle Peninsula in the General Assembly. “It will increase the number of failures that are out there, or it decreases the life expectancy of the system.”

Hodges’ belief is backed up by both research institutions and state agencies. The Virginia Coastal Policy Center found that because septic systems become less efficient in water-saturated soils, failures “will only increase as Virginia confronts imminent sea level rise,” and flooding may “compound the issues that already exist.” And at the Virginia Department of Health, the state’s primary septic regulator, the issue is being discussed by an internal Climate Change Committee formed this January.

“We are expecting [sea level rise] to cause greater failures,” said VDH legal affairs and environmental health coordinator Karri Atwood. “Systems will be inundated with water. When they’re inundated, they’re going to fail.”

Failing septic systems pose multiple threats to communities. When released into soils and water bodies, bacteria and parasites from human waste can lead to dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid and hookworm. (After nearly being eradicated in prior decades, hookworm has reappeared in some poor areas of the South with widespread septic failures.)

Human waste also carries nitrogen, the primary pollutant in the Chesapeake Bay, which causes algae blooms and an oxygen-deprived dead zone. VDH has estimated that onsite sewage systems contribute about 4% of the nitrogen that flows into the Bay annually, with more than half a million systems in Virginia contributing 2.9 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay every year.

These impacts bleed into other areas of life, too. Polluted waters do more than inhibit recreation; they can also lead to closures of areas used for commercial fishing and the harvesting of shellfish, an important part of coastal Virginia’s economy and culture.

Coastal Virginia will not, of course, be the only region affected by septic failures. Increased precipitation will likely cause effects across the state, soaking soils and hobbling technology not designed to withstand such large volumes of water. But coastal communities will likely be the hardest hit because they are expected to bear additional impacts from sea level rise, severe storm events and erosion.

To Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, which in 1997 founded Virginia’s first public septic repair program to help struggling homeowners, the evidence of the problem is already apparent.

“If you go into these low-lying coastal areas, the land is not drying. It’s just not,” he said. “The whole system is completely collapsing under the weight of too much water everywhere.”

“Vast under-reporting”

While Virginia recognizes the growing problem that septic failures pose for human and environmental health, its efforts to address the issue have been hampered by three key problems: The state has insufficient data on existing septic systems, its regulatory framework relies on individuals to bear the financial burden of repairs, and the gap between state regulation and local enforcement has produced laws that lack teeth.

Of these, perhaps the most pressing concern is the lack of complete data.

In a number of cases, “we don’t even know exactly where [a] system is located,” said Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science.

For the last year, a team led by Hershner has been working with the state Health Department to predict where septic failures will most likely occur. Work has been slow because of struggles to centralize basic information. Virginia’s first septic regulations weren’t adopted until 1980, and they are largely enforced locally — meaning that many records are held by local health departments and frequently exist only on paper.

“VDH has hundreds of thousands of hard copy, onsite sewage system records on file that predate our statewide database,” Lance Gregory, director of the VDH Division of Onsite Sewage and Water Services, Environmental Engineering, and Marina Programs, wrote in an email.
The department has been working to gather all of that information into a centralized database, he said, but “local health department resources dictate how quickly that can be accomplished.”

According to Gregory, VDH has “pretty good data” on systems installed after 2003, when the state established its first septic database, but has a “data gap” for the years 1990–2003. (The U.S. Census Bureau used to collect information on septic usage but stopped after 1990.)

Overall, VDH estimates that Virginia is home to about 1.1 million septic systems — many of which were installed prior to 2003. And on the Middle Peninsula, Lawrence said, “we’re already seeing the first batch of systems that we put in in 2000 [get] worn out.”

Lawrence sees 2000 as a turning point that triggered the installation of hundreds of new septic systems on the peninsula. That year, changes in Virginia’s sewage handling and disposal regulations allowed homeowners to install “alternative” systems, which use technology to filter and treat waste before discharging it to a surrounding area. In contrast, conventional systems largely rely on the soil of a drainfield to naturally filter waste.

While conventional systems tend to be simpler and cheaper than alternative systems, their reliance on gravity-driven percolation means that they can’t be installed everywhere. Poor soils that can’t adequately filter nutrients or a lack of low-lying land that prevents downward percolation can make conventional systems either unworkable or a threat to water quality.

Alternative systems have made it possible to construct homes with septic systems in areas once not considered viable. On the Middle Peninsula, the number of alternative systems spiked 40% between 2000 and 2008.

The status of many of these alternative systems remains murky. Owners with property in the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area (which largely lies east of Interstate 95) are required to submit an operations and maintenance report to their local health department annually, but many do not. According to a December 2016 VDH report, the department had no operations or maintenance record for 58% of the alternative systems in its database. (The remaining 42% had at least one, but not necessarily a report for every year they had been operating.) Since then, Gregory said, VDH outreach has lowered that number to 50%.

As Virginia began drafting its most recent plan to meet water quality goals for the Chesapeake Bay, several planning districts aired concerns about these gaps.

“There is vast underreporting of conventional systems, pump-outs, sewer connections, and alternative … systems from localities to VDH, and VDH to the [Virginia Department of Environmental Quality],” noted the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission in December. Most significantly, the commission argued that the Bay Program had undercounted the district’s septic systems by more than 8,000.

For the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which oversees Virginia’s portion of the Eastern Shore, the big question is how many residences lack any indoor plumbing. That commission estimated that about 200 homes on the Shore are forced to rely on privies or portable toilets, but, as a 2015 study noted, “the full extent of the problem has not been documented.”

Wastewater islands

Despite the lack of complete information, Hershner’s team at the Center for Coastal Research Management is striving to develop a predictive model of where septic systems might be most likely to fail. Pilot work is focusing on Lancaster, Northampton, Accomack, Gloucester and Isle of Wight counties, all of which lie in coastal regions.

“A lot of that information, we may never be able to get a handle on,” said Julie Herman, a senior GIS analyst on the team. Besides age and the exact location of a system, soil composition, depth of the water table, repair history and a host of other factors can play important roles in determining what fails and what doesn’t.

Still, Hershner said, the research has “started to lead us in certain directions. Not unexpectedly, low-lying areas tend to have more of a problem.”

Other less immediately apparent factors may also play a role. In Virginia, areas with a high degree of reliance on onsite septic systems frequently coincide with low-income and historically disenfranchised communities, such as those with high numbers of African American residents. Known as “wastewater islands,” these areas have no access to centralized public sewer systems and typically have poor soils that don’t support conventional septic systems well.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are complex and, to some degree, not fully understood. One hypothesis, offered by Gregory and former VDH training coordinator Danna Revis in an influential 2015 paper, contends that its origins lie in the post-Civil War allocation of land.

“Disenfranchised people in Virginia were historically given the least productive agricultural lands and … there is a correlation between poor soils for agricultural purposes and poor soils for onsite wastewater disposal,” they noted. “These ‘poor lands’ were passed on to future generations, so the future generations inherited the inequities, creating a cycle of poverty.”

Both Virginia and the federal government offer a range of grants and loans to help homeowners repair or replace failing systems. On a broader scale, localities can apply for funding from sources such as the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund and Community Development Block Grant program.

Most recently, thanks to mitigation payments by Dominion Energy connected to its construction of a major transmission line across the James River, VDH received $500,000 to help repair failing septic systems and replace pipes that discharge untreated waste directly into waterways in the James River watershed.

These funding sources have been “very effective” over the last 20 years in addressing septic failures, said David Fridley, a manager for the Three Rivers Health District, which encompasses both the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. As a consequence, “the volume and number of cases has decreased over time.”

But others have criticized the fragmentation of funding sources on the grounds that many people facing failures don’t know they exist. Gregory and Revis noted in their 2015 paper that government programs are geared more toward assisting sewer plants than private residents. Similarly, the Virginia Coastal Policy Center’s 2018 report noted that “despite this being a communitywide threat,” septic system costs “usually [are] borne by individual property owners.”

At VDH, Atwood called the need to help people who can’t afford to repair a failing system “a constant source of frustration.” And Lawrence pointed out that some funding sources, like the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan program, can be tapped out.

“This winter was so wet that the number of applicants that we had calling asking for financial assistance to repair their septic systems went through the roof,” he said.

The state can fine or prosecute homeowners who fail to maintain their septic systems, but rarely does, particularly because the violation of septic laws is a criminal offense in most rural parts of Virginia. Even when penalties are imposed, the Virginia Coastal Policy Center has argued that they are often “counterproductive.” Ordering people who can’t afford to repair or replace their system to pay a fine, after all, only reduces the money they have available to remedy the problem.

Del. Hodges put it more bluntly: “Commonwealth’s Attorneys … are not going to take Granny to jail or to court to pump out their system.”

A solution may be on the horizon: During its last session, the General Assembly passed a law, sponsored by Hodges, ordering that VDH study the possibility of assuming the oversight of septic pump-outs on the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. The study has also been included as a priority in the state’s most recent plan for meeting Bay cleanup goals.

Until change occurs, however, Lawrence expressed skepticism about how localities can meet the state’s most recent goal to pump out 20% of all septic systems in the Bay watershed every year — helping to forestall or prevent failures.

“How do you expect to reach this goal when there’s no enforcement mechanism at the local rural level, and the judges and commonwealth’s attorneys have said, ‘Don’t bring these septic issues to court?’ ” he asked. “There’s no hammer. And so if there’s no hammer, we’re at a standstill.”