2022 journal article
Climate Change and Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems in the Coastal Carolinas: Perspectives from Wastewater Managers
WEATHER CLIMATE AND SOCIETY, 14(4), 1287–1305.
Abstract Nearly one-half of the residents of North and South Carolina use decentralized or onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS). As the climate changes, coastal communities relying on OWTS are particularly vulnerable, as soil-based wastewater treatment may be reduced by water inundation from storm surge, sea level rise and associated groundwater rise, and heavy rainfall. Despite the vulnerabilities of OWTS to increased precipitation and sea level rise, there is little known about how onsite wastewater managers are responding to current and future climate risks. We conducted interviews with wastewater operators and installers and health regulators to understand the functioning, management, and regulation of OWTS in the current climate, challenges with rising sea levels and increases in extreme weather events, and what adaptation strategies could be implemented to mitigate negative impacts. Our results indicate that heavy precipitation and storm surges cause malfunctions for conventional septic systems where traditional site variables (e.g., soil type or groundwater level) are undesirable. Weather and climate are not required regulatory factors to consider in system selection and site approval, but many OWTS managers are aware of their impacts on the functioning of systems, and some are preemptively taking action to mitigate those impacts. Our findings suggest that filling gaps in the current communication structure between regulators and homeowners relying on OWTS is critical for coastal communities in the Carolinas to build climate resilience into decentralized wastewater infrastructure. Significance Statement This research aims to understand the functioning, management, and regulation of onsite wastewater treatment systems in the current climate, the challenges to these systems caused by rising sea levels and increases in extreme weather events, and the adaptation strategies that can be implemented to mitigate negative climate impacts. These results can be used by state government agencies, municipalities, and private sector wastewater managers to improve the resiliency of onsite wastewater treatment systems.