Variation in septic system effluent inputs to tributaries in multiple subwatersheds and approaches to distinguish contributing pathways and areas Academic Article uri icon

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  • Quantifying the contribution of septic systems to contaminant, including nutrient, loading to streams is needed in many watersheds to inform water quality management programs. However, this quantification is challenging due to the distributed locations of septic systems and uncertainties regarding the pathways delivering effluent from septic systems (functioning and failing) to a stream. The objectives of this study were firstly to evaluate how septic effluent inputs to streams vary with stream discharge conditions for multiple subwatersheds with different characteristics (i.e., geology, septic system density, and typical age), and secondly to examine new approaches for distinguishing the pathways and the contributing areas delivering septic effluent to streams. These approaches use the artificial sweetener acesulfame as a conservative tracer for septic effluent in applications of: (i) stream concentration-discharge (C-Q) relationships using low frequency sampling data, (ii) hysteresis behavior in event-based C-Q relationships, and (iii) longitudinal stream sampling. For all nine subwatersheds studied, the amount of septic effluent reaching the subwatershed outlets was considerably higher during high stream discharge (event) conditions compared to low discharge (baseflow) conditions, suggesting pathways other than groundwater may also be important. Generally, the percentage of septic effluent reaching the outlets was less for subwatersheds with newer households compared to those with older households. The combined interpretation of low frequency and event-based C-Q relationships indicate that complex pathways control the delivery of septic effluent to the subwatershed outlets. The interpretations suggest that groundwater pathways may dominate in some subwatersheds, while more rapid pathways associated with failing septic systems (e.g., overland runoff) may be important in others. Finally, longitudinal stream sampling illustrate the potential of acesulfame data to identify key areas contributing septic effluent to the stream. The novel approaches used here can be applied to guide future investigations aiming to quantify and manage water quality impairment from septic systems.


  • Tamang, Archana
  • Roy, James W
  • Boreux, Maxime P
  • Robinson, Clare E

publication date

  • February 2022