Don't let water quality slide down the drain
Tips to protect your community's water quality
• Sweep the driveway and sidewalk rather than spraying them off with water from a hose.
• Never pour anything, especially waste oil or leftover lawn chemicals, into a storm drain.
• Use absorbent material, such as kitty litter, to clean up grease, brake fluid, antifreeze or other chemical spills.
• Minimize the need for pesticides by selecting the right plant for the right place. Native plant species usually work best.
• Inspect your home's sewer connection or septic system annually and make any necessary repairs.
Whether you live in the country or city and have a sewer or a septic, you play a role in the quality of your community's water quality. The way you do laundry, bathe, prepare dinner and landscape your yard has an impact on your neighbors and the environment. It may be a direct impact with immediate consequences, but more often the effect is cumulative, building up over time and catastrophic in nature. Knowing what truly goes on underground may give you a new perspective on how you can keep this valuable resource clean.
Paul Thompson, president of PMT & Associates Inc., an environmental services firm in Baltimore, is one expert who's concerned about what's flushing through septic pipes and sewer mains. During his work assessing ground water and soil contamination, Thompson says he's discovered and helped repair invisible calamities lying underground for more than 30 years.
"Homeowners don't realize they're the largest source of unregulated, nonpermitted pollution in their community," Thompson says. "Health departments may issue permits to construct a well and septic system, but they rarely inform the homeowner on how to properly operate and maintain the system."
For example, Thompson says a kitchen garbage disposal shouldn't be used very often. The septic tank allows solids to settle out of the water and holds them, creating sludge. Water flows from the tank to a drain field where it's dissipated. Thompson explains that when a kitchen garbage disposal is used, the solids are ground up too fine to settle in the tank and instead flow into the drain field where they clog the lines and cause the system to malfunction.
Steps you can take to maintain your septic system:
• Minimize and conserve water use.
• Have your septic tank pumped periodically, depending on usage.
• When opened for pumping, inspect your tank for cracks.
• Take care of your drain field and restrict activities on it.
• Don't use your drain as a trash chute, only for wash water and toilets.
Thompsons points out that household drains, such as those in a garage or laundry room sink, often introduce solvents, grease, and cleansers and soaps into the environment. These dissolved chemicals end up passing through the tank and the drain field into the ground water, where your neighbor's well may be drawing water.
Consumers who are connected to municipal wastewater services also play a vital role in maintaining the safe functioning of the utility. Sewage spills and overflows can happen in any community. Tree roots, old or broken pipes and debris blockage all contribute to malfunctions, yet the leading cause of spills is buildup from improper disposal of residential cooking grease. When poured into drains, cooking grease eventually solidifies and clogs pipes, which can lead to manhole overflows and other sewer spills.
The solution is public awareness and education. In many communities, you can take cooking oils to a recycling center. Otherwise, you should seal them in a container and place them in your household trash. Animal fats and grease should be frozen in a disposable container, or mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds and deposited in the trash.
Always be prepared. Locate the phone number of your community's wastewater treatment facility in case you need to report a sewage spill. Protecting water quality is a community effort as well as an individual responsibility because we're all connected underground.