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As the climate changes, a growing number of septic systems could fail.

Katie Hill of the University of Georgia says that in most conventional septic systems, wastewater enters a tank. Solids settle to the bottom, and liquids flow out into what’s called a drain field.

“And the drain field is where the actual treatment of the wastewater takes place,” she says.

There, the liquid waste trickles slowly through a thick layer of soil, so it’s filtered before entering groundwater.

But in many coastal areas, rising seas and extreme weather are pushing water tables higher. That could allow the liquid waste to reach groundwater before it’s properly filtered.

Hill says homeowners are unlikely to notice the problem. And regulations in Georgia and many other states are not designed to catch it.

“The existing state rules that we have in place … do not take the impacts of the sea-level rise into consideration when permitting, designing, or monitoring systems,” Hill says.

So she says it’s important for states to update their policies or allow local governments to adopt their own regulations. That will help ensure that septic systems are sited safely and monitored carefully as the climate changes.

Also see: A brief introduction to climate change and sea-level rise

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media