UGA Marine Extension has completed a project to assist environmental health departments in three coastal Georgia counties.
In October 2011, The University of Georgia Marine Extension Service launched a project to update the electronic inventory of on-site septic systems (also known as septic tanks) in Bryan, Liberty and McIntosh Counties. The project was completed in July, 2014.
Final report: Septic Tank Inventory for Bryan, Liberty and McIntosh Counties, Georgia
Funded by a Coastal Incentive Grant, the project involved reviewing the paper documents associated with existing septic tanks and entering the information into “The Digital Health Department,” an online database that is operated by the Georgia Division of Public Health and used by a majority of Georgia counties.
The next phase of the project, also funded by a Coastal Incentive Grant, will begin in October 2014 and will involve the same efforts in Glynn and Long Counties.
The most obvious benefit of having the septic tanks documented in the information system is that it will ease the day-to-day workflow in the health departments. However, a greater benefit is that it will create a map layer of septic tanks that will be readily available for regional planning and scientific analysis, both of which are important as the Georgia coast experiences rapid growth.
With Georgia’s marine industries being dependent upon estuarine water quality, MAREX sees the project as benefitting the environment. Conventional septic tanks were not intended or designed to remove nitrogen from their waste-water and, as a result, some nitrogen in septic tank waste-water reaches the ground water and some of that nitrogen eventually reaches the surface water.
There are septic tanks that remove nitrogen, but these are more expensive than conventional septic tanks. Nitrogen is one of the two key plant nutrients that are found in surface water (phosphorus is the other) and too much of it can lead to a condition known as “eutrophication.”
Literally speaking, eutrophication means “well nourished.” However, due to the fact that excessive nutrients in the water of an ecosystem cause a disruption in the balance of the ecosystem, eutrophication is typically considered to be a form of pollution.
The introduction of excessive nutrients leads to the algae population growing to a larger than normal size. Several factors associated with the increased algae population contribute to the water becoming depleted of oxygen and this in turn can cause the death of many of the organisms that had existed in the balanced ecosystem, including fish.
While Georgia has not experienced dangerously high levels of nitrogen in its estuarine waters, the presence of an increasing human population ensures that the possibility will always exist. Other sources of nutrients, namely industry and agriculture, are regulated for their contribution of nutrients into the environment. The creation of this inventory will make it possible to better understand the extent to which septic tanks are contributing nitrogen to Georgia’s coastal estuarine waters.