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Domestic wells have high probability of pumping septic tank leachate

Author(s): J. E. Horn | T. Harter

Journal: Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions
ISSN 1812-2108

Volume: 8;
Issue: 3;
Start page: 5701;
Date: 2011;
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Onsite wastewater treatment systems such as septic 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 system and a private drinking water well. Site-specific conditions and local groundwater flow are often ignored when installing septic systems and wells. Particularly in areas with small lots, thus a high septic system density, these typically shallow wells are prone to contamination by septic system leachate. Typically, mass balance approaches are used to determine a maximum septic system density that would prevent contamination of the aquifer. In this study, we estimate the probability of a well pumping partially septic system leachate. A detailed groundwater and transport model is used to calculate the capture zone of a typical drinking water well. A spatial probability analysis is performed to assess the probability that a capture zone overlaps with a septic system drainfield depending on aquifer properties, lot and drainfield size. We show that a high 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 conclude that mass balances 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 which experience limited attenuation, and those being harmful even in low concentrations.
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