Articles | Volume 16, issue 8
Research article
03 Aug 2012
Research article |  | 03 Aug 2012

Domestic wells have high probability of pumping septic tank leachate

J. E. Bremer and T. Harter

Abstract. Onsite wastewater treatment systems are common in rural and semi-rural areas around the world; in the US, about 25–30% of households are served by a septic (onsite) wastewater treatment system, and many property owners also operate their own domestic well nearby. Site-specific conditions and local groundwater flow are often ignored when installing septic systems and wells. In areas with small lots (thus high spatial septic system densities), shallow domestic wells are prone to contamination by septic system leachate. Mass balance approaches have been used to determine a maximum septic system density that would prevent contamination of groundwater resources. In this study, a source area model based on detailed groundwater flow and transport modeling is applied for a stochastic analysis of domestic well contamination by septic leachate. Specifically, we determine the probability that a source area overlaps with a septic system drainfield as a function of aquifer properties, septic system density and drainfield size. We show that high spatial septic system density poses a high probability of pumping septic system leachate. The hydraulic conductivity of the aquifer has a strong influence on the intersection probability. We find that mass balance calculations applied on a regional scale underestimate the contamination risk of individual drinking water wells by septic systems. This is particularly relevant for contaminants released at high concentrations, for substances that experience limited attenuation, and those that are harmful even at low concentrations (e.g., pathogens).