Are Failing Septic Systems Polluting the Clackamas River? We’re on the Case.


CWA1The Clean Water Act, originally passed in 1972, is the principal federal law concerned with water pollution. Originally, this law only covered point source pollution, which is pollution that enters the water through a pipe or in a channel. Imagine the stereotypical riverside industrial plant with pipes dumping brown sludge into the water. That’s point source pollution.

But what about pollution that just flows over or through the ground, eventually finding its way to the nearest stream or river? That’s called nonpoint source pollution. Some examples of nonpoint source pollution are oils washed off the roads by rain, car wash water that carries soaps and other cleaners, fertilizers washed off of agricultural lands by irrigation, weed and insect killers washed out of our own yards by rain or sprinklers, and even leakage from failing septic systems which seeps through the ground.

CWA2In 1987, congress recognized the impact of nonpoint source pollution on our nation’s waters and amended the Clean Water Act to address it. Part of the 1987 amendments was a grant program designed to help state and local agencies and water quality organizations pay for research and management of nonpoint source pollution. Under this grant program Clackamas Community College, Clackamas River Water Providers, and Clackamas River Water were given funding to study whether or not human waste is leaking from failing septic systems and polluting the Clackamas River.

Our Research

We used mapping software referred to as geographic information systems, or GIS, developed by the Clackamas River Water Providers to mark the locations of old, potentially failing septic systems along the Clackamas River. Once a month, we collect samples from the river near these sites and test them for a range of parameters. We also collect samples that we will soon begin analyzing for bacterial contamination. Once we have perfected our laboratory procedures and analyzed the samples, we will know relatively how much bacterial contamination from each site is coming from humans, cattle, other ruminants (goats, sheep, deer, etc), and horses. If a large percentage of the bacteria are from human waste it will tell us that some of the septic systems in the area have failed.

How it Impacts You

Bacteria, nutrients, and other contaminants from failed septic systems make your drinking water more expensive to treat. The more pollutants that are in the water the more treatment it requires. And even though your water always receives enough treatment and testing to ensure that it’s safe to drink, byproducts of the treatment process can affect its taste and smell.

The Good News

If we do find that septic systems in any of our study areas have failed, all hope is not lost! The Clackamas County Septic Assistance Program has been established to provide septic system inspections, pump-out rebates, and low interest loans, which homeowners can use for septic system repairs and replacements. If you live in the Clackamas River Watershed and would like more information about the Clackamas County Septic Assistance Program please contact Kim Swan of Clackamas River Water Providers at (503) 723-3510.