Septic Systems & Watershed Protection

Proper use and routine maintenance and upkeep of septic systems is crucial for safeguarding watershed health. To preserve the well-being of lakes and streams, it is imperative for residents within the watershed’s limits to conduct regular inspections and maintenance of their septic systems. Adhere to the septic system maintenance guidelines provided below and contribute to watershed protection by being informed about septic care. “Do your part…be septic smart!”

Inspect It & Protect It

Even well-operating septic systems can permit harmful chemicals and detrimental nutrients to permeate the soil, eventually finding their way into surface water and, in some cases, even drinking water.

Every septic system has a finite lifespan. Whether old or new, these systems endure for an extended period as long as the microbes in the tank and drain field are not exposed to harsh chemicals and pharmaceuticals that can exterminate the beneficial bacteria responsible for treating incoming wastewater. Consequently, newer systems may experience premature failure if substances harmful to the system are introduced, or if the volume of wastewater overwhelms its capacity.

Conversely, both aging and recent septic systems can function effectively for an extended duration if the substances disposed of down the drain are not detrimental to the microbes responsible for wastewater treatment. Additionally, matching the volume of wastewater with the system’s capacity contributes to its longevity.

However, ultimately, all drain fields—whether new or old—will reach a point where the soils and microbes lose their ability to effectively treat wastewater, necessitating the replacement of the old drain field. A well-maintained drain field typically lasts around 25 years or more.

Homeowners can safeguard water quality by being mindful of what goes down their drains and by regularly inspecting their septic systems to ensure proper functionality.

Septic System Basics

In the septic system, a network of drainpipes transports wastewater to a sizable tank buried in close proximity to the house. Within the tank, solid particles settle at the bottom, and greases and oils rise to the surface. Anaerobic bacteria, capable of thriving without oxygen, break down these waste materials, transforming them into by-products like carbon dioxide, methane, and water. The decomposed liquid waste then moves from the septic tank to a drain field. In the drain field, the wastewater permeates through gravel before seeping into the soil, where residual nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen bind with minerals. Ultimately, this treated wastewater, having undergone bacterial treatment in the tank and the surrounding soil near the drain field, enters the groundwater, becoming part of our drinking water and the supply for lakes.

Water Septic Tank Infographic

Learn how to prevent your system from impacting nearby ground and surface water by referring to our tips below…


Make sure you know where your septic tank and drainfield are located so you can watch for signs of problems.

Have your system inspected regularly by a qualified professional in accordance with state and local health department recommendations. Properly operating septic systems require pumping when the tanks become 1/3 full.

Graphic showing how a septic works and how to be septicsmart

  • Don’t plant trees on your drainfield—root systems clog and interfere with the pipes
  • Keep cars and heavy equipment off the drainfield to protect it from compaction
  • Direct rainwater from gutters and stormwater runoff from paved areas away from the drainfield—too much water will accelerate the leaching of nutrients into the ground
  • Never build or pave over a drainfield or septic tank

  • Foul odors around the septic tank or drainfield
  • Lush green grass over the drainfield
  • Spongy or soggy areas in the drainfield
  • Cladophora growth near your shoreline
  • A backed-up or sluggish toilet
  • Sewage odor in the basement
Call a professional immediately if you suspect there is a problem with your septic system!

Women cleaning bathroom sink/vanity with a sponge and spray bottleOut of sight is NOT out of mind!
  • Household chemicals and cleaners, such as bleach or drain cleaner, should be avoided. These kill off “good” bacteria which break down the solid waste in the septic tank.
  • This can lead to septic system backups
  • Dispose of food waste in the trash or compost pile, rather than in a garbage disposal. Garbage disposal use can overload the septic system and introduce nitrogen and phosphorus into the wastewater
  • Never put the following items down sinks or toilets: grease, hair, cigarette butts, facial tissues, paper towels, feminine hygiene supplies, bandages, paint, solvents, motor oil, pharmaceuticals, and other hazardous waste
  • Stick with phosphate-free cleaning and personal products



These products are a poor substitute for proper septic system maintenance! While they claim to convert solid material from the septic tank into liquid which can move quickly through the drainfield, accelerating the natural decay process will send larger amounts of nutrients and contaminants into nearby surface and groundwater.

The more water flowing through the septic system, the faster and more intense is the release of nutrients into the ground. As a rule, you reduce nitrogen releases by conserving water. Water conservation also cuts electricity bills, since water wells uses AC power to pump the water into your house. Distribute laundry loads throughout the week to avoid overloading the system, and always use detergents without phosphates.

Be wary of contractors who offer to save you money by cutting corners. An improperly installed system can spell disaster by polluting surface or groundwater with nitrates, fecal bacteria, and viruses. Consider the newest septic technologies which can help protect nearby surface water by removing nitrogen and phosphorus in the drainfield.