Soil and water biogeochemical response to COVID-19: increased stress on septic systems alters soil and water quality

Lead Researcher

Dr. Krista Capps

Research Description

Early in 2020 northeast Georgia had much higher rainfall than normal placing increased stress on aging septic systems in the region. Additionally, “shelter-in-place” and “social distancing” policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the time residents spend at home and therefore the use of residential septic wastewater treatment systems. This increased stress on septic systems may change soil properties and pollutant content in septic leach fields. This project will investigate how increased septic system use could lead to pollutant runoff. Septic systems will be investigated inside and outside of the leach field perimeter and the soil physical, hydrologic, and chemical properties analyzed in the field and with laboratory methods. The results from this study will inform land managers and local governments on pollutants that need to be managed to protect human health, natural resources, and the environment. Educational materials will be prepared and distributed at the annual Athens Water Festival. One graduate student will be directly involved in the project and will be trained in a wide selection of field and laboratory techniques.

The object of this project is to investigate the current period of intensive rainfall and septic system use and how it may generate novel hotspots of biogeochemical activity in both soil and soil water. The core hypothesis is that enhanced nutrient loading in septic leach fields during this period of increased septic stress (COVID-19 and weather related) will drive shifts in quantity and composition of organic matter in soil and soil water, along with shifts in overall biogeochemical cycling. This research project will address three objectives: 1. Estimate the impact of leach fields on soil and soil water biogeochemistry using a comparative approach. 2. Identify potential hotspots of change in nutrients and soil organic matter with enough spatial and temporal resolution to generate larger-scale hotspot predictions. 3. Estimate potential nutrient and organic matter loading being delivered to water bodies from related stress in septic system functioning and to septic system maintenance. By investigating the impacts of extreme weather events and increased septic system demand, this work will provide critical insights to shifts in soil water and related aquatic nutrient loading. Understanding these shifts will provide local governments information related to long-term use of septic systems, and management challenges related to future climate regimes. The PIs anticipate working with local agencies and outreach specialists to develop new septic educational material to be distributed at the annual Athens Water Festival, taking advantage of an on-going collaboration with Clarke County. The PI is a new researcher, and one graduate student will be directly involved in the project and will be trained in a wide selection of field and laboratory techniques.


National Science Foundation

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