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Septic Smarts and the Clean Water Ambassador Program

Septic Smart Week 2019 is September 16-20

The Indiana DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program and its federal, State, and local partners are participating in the annual EPA SepticSmart Week education and outreach efforts. An estimated 33,033 households across the Indiana Lake Michigan watershed depend on septic systems to treat their wastewater. Failure to maintain a septic system can lead to backups and overflows. This can result in costly repairs, polluted lakes and waterways, and risks to public health and the environment. Don’t fall victim to a failed system.

Tips to keep your home, family, and water healthy:

  • Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every 3-5 years by a licensed professional, and have their tank pumped when necessary, typically every 3-5 years. Many septic system failures occur during the winter holiday season. Therefore, EPA encourages homeowners to get their septic systems inspected and serviced now before licensed inspectors’ schedules fill up around the holidays.
  • Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
  • Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. Coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can clog and potentially damage septic systems.
  • Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day — too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
  • Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
  • How does a Septic System Work?
    • Overview
      • Septic systems are individual or small community cluster systems used to treat wastewater. They are used to treat and dispose of relatively small volumes of wastewater, usually from houses and businesses located in suburban and rural locations not served by a centralized public sewer system. They treat wastewater from household plumbing fixtures (toilet, shower, laundry, etc.) through both natural and technological processes, typically beginning with solids settling in a septic tank, and ending with wastewater treatment in the soil via the drainfield (EPA, Web 2019).
    • How it Works
      • A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.
      • The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.
      • Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil (EPA, Web 2019).
      • Animated, interactive model of how a household septic system works, created by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority
    • Common Systems in Northwest Indiana
    • How to find it
      • You probably have a septic system if…
        • If you have well water
        • If the waterline coming into your house does not have a meter
        • If your neighbor has one
        • If your water bill shows a $0.00 for “Sewer Amount Charged”
      • It should be located on your home’s “as built” drawing
      • Check your yard for lids and manhole covers
      • Contact your local health department
    • “Why is it important to maintain it?”
      • It saves you money.
        • Malfunctioning systems can cost $3,000 - $10,000 or more to repair or replace compared to maintenance costs of $250 - $500 every 3-5 years.
      • It protects the value of your home
        • Malfunctioning systems can drastically reduce property values, hamper the sales of your home, and even pose a legal liability.
      • It keeps our water safe and clean.
        • A properly maintained system helps keep local lakes and rivers, including Lake Michigan, clean for your use and enjoyment. If you have a well, it also reduces the risk of drinking contaminated water.
      • It keeps the environment clean.
        • Malfunctioning systems can damage the local ecosystems by harming plants, fish, and shellfish native to Indiana’s Lake Michigan watershed.
    • “How to properly maintain it”
      • Have your system inspected and/or pumped every 3-5 years by a licensed professional. See the website for IOWPA certified professionals in your area here
      • Don’t pour grease, fats, or other harmful chemicals like paints and solvents down your drain. They can clog or otherwise harm your system.
      • Don’t flush non-degradable items such as diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene products, cat litter, etc.
      • Don’t park or drive on your drainfield. Avoid planting trees and shrubs over the drainfield.
      • Fix household leaks and use water efficiently to avoid overtaxing your system.
      • Contact your local health department with any questions. It is there to help.
  • The Septic System Coordination Workgroup
    • Onsite Disposal System (Septic System) Management Measures are included in the Indiana Lake Michigan Coastal Nonpoint Source (NPS) Pollution Control Program as outlined in Section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Reauthorization Amendments (CZARA). The Environmental protection Agency (EPA) and the National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determine if states have met all of the measures in the Coastal Nonpoint Program.
    • Indiana has not yet met the measure for ensuring that Operating Septic Systems are inspected at a frequency adequate to ascertain whether the system is failing.
    • In order to meet the Coastal NPS management measure for Operating Septic Systems, the DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program organized the Northwest Indiana Septic System Coordination Workgroup (SSCWG). The workgroup comprises federal, State, and local agencies, organizations, not-for-profit groups, universities, communities, and interested citizens interested in improving the septic system operation, maintenance, and the protection of human and environmental health.
    • The SSCWG has and currently meets bi-monthly to discuss septic-related concerns, challenges, research, and triumphs in the region that help NWI communities improve their property values, health, and water quality. Their efforts are helping local homeowners, municipalities, and many others to protect, improve, and plan vibrant, healthy communities in “The Region.”
    • The Lake Michigan Coastal Program and SSCWG partners address the Coastal NPS Program and local priorities by using the strategies below:
      • Use Coastal Program Enhancement funding to fund a Save the Dunes pilot project aimed at understanding and designing effective outreach and education tools for septic maintenance
      • Use these pilot project findings to create an effective peer to peer community outreach and education strategy and printed materials
      • Use a 319 grant awarded to the Lake Michigan Coastal Program from IDEM to implement the peer to peer community outreach and education efforts in prioritized neighborhoods throughout the watershed
      • Map and create an inventory of septic systems within the Lake Michigan watershed boundary
      • Use a 319 grant awarded to the Lake Michigan Coastal Program from IDEM to employ molecular source tracking technology in efforts to determine human-sourced bacteria presence in E. coli within the Lake Michigan watershed
      • Advocate for local adoption of Point of Sale or similar septic system ordinances
      • Promote SepticSmart Week and coordinating efforts with SSWCG partners
      • Promote SepticSmart practices and provide technical assistance regarding septic maintenance
    • Participating SSCWG Members:
      City of Gary Sanitary District,
      City of Hobart Sanitary and Stormwater Districts,
      Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve,
      Dunes Learning Center,
      Great Lakes Community Action Partnership,
      Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors,
      Homebuilders Association of Northwest Indiana,
      Indiana Association of Realtors,
      Illinois-Indiana SeaGrant,
      Indiana Department of Environmental Management,
      Indiana Department of Natural Resources Lake Michigan Coastal Program,
      Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association,
      Indiana State Department of Health,
      Indiana University Northwest,
      Lake, LaPorte, and Porter County Commissioners,
      Lake, LaPorte, and Porter County Health Departments,
      Lake, LaPorte, and Porter County MS4s,
      Lake, LaPorte, and Porter County Soil and Water Conservation Districts,
      Lakes of the Four Seasons MS4,
      Michigan City Sanitation Department,
      National Park Service,
      Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission,
      Purdue University Northwest,
      Save the Dunes,
      Town of Chesterton MS4,
      United States Department of Agriculture,
      United States Environmental Protection Agency,
      United States Fish and Wildlife Service,
      United States Forest Service,
      United States Geological Survey,
      Unity Foundation of LaPorte County,
      Urban Waters Federal Partnership,
      Valpo Lakes Area Conservancy District,
      And numerous Coastal Region communities and active citizens!
    • Want to be involved? Contact Bciara@dnr.in.gov for more information!
  • The Clean Water Ambassador Program
    Be a Good Neighbor / Healthy Septic Systems logo
    • The purpose of this program is to use peer to peer community education techniques to influence positive septic system maintenance behaviors in primarily septic-served neighborhoods throughout the Lake Michigan watershed. It is our hope that this will lead to sustained awareness and septic maintenance to protect home values, human health, and water quality with the Lake Michigan watershed by limiting E. coli pollution sourced from failing septic systems.
    • The Clean Water Ambassador program was developed as a result of a pilot study conducted by Save the Dunes and funded by the Lake Michigan Coastal Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aimed at understanding the best education and outreach techniques for improving septic system maintenance.
    • This program began in spring of 2018 and will continue through April 2020. It is funded by a 319 grant awarded from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to the DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program and the Lake Michigan Lakewide Action and Management Plan. A portion of this 319 grant has been allocated to creating and administering the Clean Water Ambassador Program.
    • The DNR Lake Michigan Coastal Program works with the Septic System Coordination Workgroup and Save the Dunes to administer this program.
    • Twenty septic-served, high septic density neighborhoods within the Lake Michigan watershed were identified as a result of a septic mapping projected completed by the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
      • Map coming soon!
        Community County
        Beverly Shores Porter
        Black Oak - Gary Lake
        Center Township Porter
        Dune Acres Porter
        High Meadows West Porter
        Hobart Lake
        Jackson Township (Carriage Hills) Porter
        liberty Township 1 Porter
        liberty Township 2 Porter
        Mallard's Landing Porter
        Miller Lake
        Moraine Manor Porter
        Ogden Dunes Porter
        Pines Porter
        Porter Beach Porter
        Pottawamie Park LaPorte
        Sylvan Manor Porter
        Trail Creek LaPorte
        Warren Woods Porter
        Winfield Lake
    • A community representative was identified from each neighborhood, trained on septic system maintenance, and provided educational materials to be distributed to their neighbors.
    • These Clean Water Ambassadors:
      • Are advocates for septic system maintenance and care
      • Are familiar with septic system function and maintenance resources to help their neighbors
      • Regularly communicate with their neighbors and promote routine septic maintenance
      • Attend periodic neighborhood association, town council, and any other identified meeting that requires Ambassador representation
      • Organize and manage SepticSmart Week activities in their communities
      • Attend mandatory trainings and meetings as requested
    • These Clean Water Ambassadors are instrumental in improving our communities and water quality.
    • Don’t see your community on the list or want more information? Contact bciara@dnr.IN.gov or Save the Dunes at cleanwaterambassador@savedunes.org
  • Downloadable Outreach Materials

    These materials are completely free to download and use for your own communities. Some already-printed items exist for use within the Lake Michigan watershed. If you wish to order these or more, please contact Bciara@dnr.IN.gov for details.

  • Septic System Owner FAQs

    How do I know if I have a septic system?

    Check your water or garbage bill. Community sewer systems will have fees and associated billing. If you are unsure, call your local sewer or water management agency.

    How often should I have my septic tank pumped and inspected?

    Certified and licensed professionals should pump and inspect your tank every three to five years. However, if you are having issues, or experience any warning signs, contact a professional immediately.

    What are some warning signs that might indicate failure of my septic system?

    Some warning signs may include any of the following:

    • Wastewater backing up into household drains.
    • A strong odor around your septic tank or drain field.
    • Standing water.
    • Bright green, spongy grass appearing on the drain field, even during dry weather.

    If you are experiencing any of these scenarios, call a licensed professional as soon as possible.

    What objects or fluids should I avoid putting down my drain?

    Avoid pouring grease, fats, or harmful chemicals like paints and solvents. Don’t flush non-degradable items such as diapers, wipes, or feminine hygiene products. They can clog or otherwise harm your system.

    Besides regularly maintaining my system, what else should I do?

    • Don’t drive or park on your drain field.
    • Avoid planting trees and shrubs over the drain field.
    • Fix household leaks.
    • Use water efficiently to avoid overtaxing your system.

    What about septic tank additives?

    While some makers of septic tank additives claim their products break down septic tank sludge so that you don’t need to pump your systems, the effectiveness of additives hasn’t been proven. In fact, many studies show that additives have no significant effects on a tank’s bacterial population. Your septic tank already contains the microbes it needs to break down your household waste. Periodic pumping and regular maintenance, not additives, are the only ways to ensure the long-term health of your septic system.

  • Proclamations and Resolutions
  • Helpful Links