When purchasing real estate in coastal areas, buyers need to ask whether a property of interest is has a septic system and how well its operating. This question is especially important now that sea level rise is causing thousands of septic systems to operate less efficiently and even fail — sometimes well inland from the ocean.
Most septic systems take household waste water and pipes it into a holding tank buried in the yard. There, the solids sink to the bottom and the liquids flow into a leaching field where microbes in the soil treat and filter out the remaining impurities. Ideally, after that, the treated, purer water eventually flows into groundwater, nearby rivers and streams or the ocean without a problem.
Sea level rise disrupts the process by forcing the water table to rise. This saturates the soils that are needed to treat and filter out the impurities. As a result, the septic system outflow can pollute yards and contaminate groundwater and water on the surface.
When this happens, property owners usually have two choices: 1) Invest in improvements — such as raising the septic system if that’s feasible and adding more dirt to the system — or 2) Abandoning the septic system and tying into a city wastewater treatment system.
To protect themselves from unexpected expenses, real estate buyers in coastal areas need to know if a property is served by a septic system or already tied into the municipal sewer system. If the answer is septic, they need to have a home inspector determine if the system is operating well and how long it will be effective as seas continue to rise.