The vast majority of houses and many businesses in northeastern North Carolina rely on conventional septic systems to collect wastewater, but with no mandatory requirement to maintain or repair after installation they can naturally fail due to a variety of issues.
That can lead to not only serious headaches for property owners, it is also a direct threat to the public’s health and the region’s sensitive ecosystem.
The Town of Nags Head has been leading the way locally with an initiative launched in 1999 to educate about how to properly maintain conventional septic systems.
The initiative is named for Todd Krafft, the town’s Environmental Planner for 20 years, to honor his “tireless work, dedication, and memory” and “his efforts in establishing and sustaining the Septic Health Initiative”.
With less than 15 percent of the town on a centralized sewer system, Conner Twiddy, current Environmental Planner for Nags Head, notes that its important for homeowners and vacationers to know what type of system is used at their property.
“If you have an advanced system, like a peat or low pressure pipe system, you’ll have a box in your yard or you’ll see green bins in the ground, and they always have a sign that has an operator’s numbers,” Twiddy said. “They have an alarm that goes off when the tanks are full or something else is going on.”
“Conventional systems, a lot of times, they are out of sight out of mind,” Twiddy said. “Especially along the Beach Road, where sand will cover the lids. So if don’t see anything, there’s a good chance the house you are buying or renting has a conventional system.”
Twiddy said the town offers free inspections to locate tanks, check if it needs to be pumped out or not, or has any other problems.
“If it does need to be pumped, we have a water bill credit that was just increased in July of 2022 to $150,” Twiddy said. “You can get the credit once every three years.”
“If there is an issue that’s found during the inspection, or prior to the inspection, and people are having issues, we offer low interest loans of up to $12,000 to help repair or help replace your system,” Twiddy said. “These are all for conventional systems, tank and drain field.”
For the 2022-23 fiscal year, 95 property owners received the water credit, while eight took advantage of the loan program totaling $37,800.
In the budget for FY 2023-24, town commissioners have allocated $305,452 for the Krafft Septic Health Initiative Program and another $60,000 for the loan program.
At the end of last year, a Septic Health Advisory Committee was formed that has met several times and produced new outreach and educational ideas and even new town policies, according to Twiddy.
Among those is having static cling stickers for homeowners, property management companies and plumbers to place on toilets that educate renters about not flushing harmful items down toilets that could lead to septic issues.
“We sent out targeted letters to properties labeled as medium to high risk for higher ground water tables,” Twiddy said. “From these meetings the town’s new dewatering regulations came about.”
One regulation passed in July prohibits property owners from discharging or directing onto adjoining properties stormwater runoff, excess groundwater, and water from swimming pools, hot tubs, and heating/air conditioning systems.
The town has also ordered remote water quality data loggers to help keep an eye on rising water levels that could impact the effectiveness of drain fields, Twiddy said.
“We are required to have a minimum of 18 inches of separation between drain field and groundwater,” Twiddy said. “That means we have a lot more fill to get that separation, a lot more mounded areas for traditional tanks, or a lot more people having to potentially go with advanced systems.”
The data loggers will be first installed in the northern end of town, Twiddy said, and then they will eventually install them southward.
“That way we can help trying to get a better understanding of where the groundwater stands all over town,” Twiddy said.
Nags Head’s initiative has gained attention across North Carolina, with staff presenting at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s State Water Infrastructure Authority committee meeting regarding water quality in relation to septic and groundwater quality.
The town is also looking to gain state support in funding septic health initiatives.
And Nags Head leaders hosted a forum, through collaboration with local governments and research institutions, to address community-wide regional issues, specifically local water quality issues in relation to septic health and groundwater quality.
This past week was recognized by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as SepticSmart Week 2023, focused on educating homeowners and communities on the proper care and maintenance of their septic systems.
For more information about the Nags Head Septic Health Initiative, visit https://www.nagsheadnc.gov/280/Septic-Health-Initiative-Water-Quality