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New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

Media Center

DATE: October 15, 2012
CONTACT: Jim Martin, 603 271-3710

25 for 25: DES's Management of Septic Systems Has Protected Public Health and Public Waters for Over 25 Years
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner

Now celebrating our 25th year of serving New Hampshire’s citizens and environment, we at the Department of Environmental Services raise a glass of clean drinking water to … septic systems. Yes, septic systems! When you flush a toilet, wash your hands, take a shower, or run a load of laundry, all that dirty water has to go somewhere. For many of us living in the largely rural state of New Hampshire, our wastewater ends up most often is what we commonly call a septic system – a buried tank and an underground disposal area that allows the dirty water to seep into the ground where bacteria are broken down.

Over the years, we’ve learned the hard way that when a septic system fails or gets clogged, the untreated wastewater can result in widespread contamination of lakes and rivers, as well as of the waters under the ground that are tapped by public and private wells as the source of our drinking water. Because the harmful bacteria, viruses and toxic chemicals in wastewater are usually odorless and invisible, people and animals may unknowingly swim in or drink contaminated water, sometimes with very unfortunate results: they may develop infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, or deadly diseases like cholera and hepatitis. Even a single failed septic system can cause serious health problems.

To make matters worse, excess nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, in wastewater discharges cause plant and algae growth in lakes, ponds and tidal waters, which in turn consumes the oxygen that’s dissolved in the water, thereby creating an environment in which fish can’t survive. Studies completed by DES on our lakes show that discharges from septic systems typically contribute 16 - 20 percent of the total phosphorus load in these water bodies.

Fortunately, here in New Hampshire our legislature has long recognized the vital role that septic systems play in keeping wastewater from seeping onto our properties, or into our drinking water or favorite lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Dating back to the 1960s, the Water Supply and Pollution Control Commission, one of DES’s predecessor state agencies, was charged with developing a statewide program to ensure the safe treatment of wastewater in septic systems. This effort was complemented by federal laws enacted by Congress in the 1970s to address the larger challenges of water pollution and ensuring clean, safe drinking water.

New Hampshire first required septic system installers and designers to be licensed in 1980. Design and installation methods, as well as treatment and disposal technologies have improved immensely over the past 25 years. In the earlier days of DES, the “wet sneaker test” was commonly used to determine if soils were adequate for a septic system location. Today, new soil analysis technologies enable us to more accurately determine the ability of the soil to treat the effluent, thus improving one of the most vital aspects of septic system design.

While laws can define basic requirements and design elements, the homeowner is ultimately responsible for a properly functioning and healthy septic system. This means having the system inspected and pumped out by a licensed professional at least every two to three years; keeping grease, toxic substances and other inappropriate wastes or additives out of the system; conserving water, since too much water can overload a system; and not allowing heavy vehicles, firewood, sheds, trees or shrubs to be sited over the tank, distribution box or leach field. A well-maintained septic system can function properly for 25-50 years. Even well maintained septic systems can contribute nutrients to nearby surface waters, but there is hope that emerging technologies will help to cost-effectively reduce this risk over time.

Gone are the days of cesspools, open trenches and pipes carrying human wastes and effluent directly into nearby lakes and rivers. In the 25 years that the Department of Environmental Services has served the residents of New Hampshire, we have been proud to work with homeowners, businesses and municipalities to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of septic systems in the state are providing the necessary and vital protection of our drinking water, lakes, rivers, tidal waters and public health. DES’s work in this arena will never be done. Rather, constant vigilance is necessary to protect the clean water that is essential to New Hampshire’s economy, shoreland property values, recreation and wildlife habitat, and the health of our residents and visitors.

Author’s Note: In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I am highlighting 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the 17th in the series, discusses the importance of properly designed, installed and maintained septic systems to public health and the environment. All of the editorials in the series are available at


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