News > News > Water Quality > Campaign Highlights Three Ways Homeowners Can Protect Water Quality

Campaign Highlights Three Ways Homeowners Can Protect Water Quality

For Immediate Release: September 22, 2015

Contact: Dan Shapley, 845-797-2158, [email protected]

County Health Departments join Riverkeeper in SepticSmart Week outreach to reduce costly and environmentally damaging septic system failures.
Kingston, NY — County Health Departments in the Hudson Valley are joining Riverkeeper in highlighting the important role played by homeowners with private septic systems in protecting the health of the Hudson River watershed. September 21-25 is SepticSmart Week, an Environmental Protection Agency public education effort.

Homeowners with private septic systems are being urged to take three simple steps to protect water quality by ensuring their systems function properly:

  • Have your septic system maintained (septic tank pumped) every three to five years.
  • Ensure that the land over your septic system is kept clear, with no trees, shrubs or parked cars that can cause systems to malfunction.
  • Conserve water, and flush nothing but toilet paper to ensure your system functions efficiently.

Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program Manager Dan Shapley said: “Partnered with communities throughout the region, Riverkeeper conducts the most extensive water quality monitoring project identifying where and when our waters meet federal safe-swimming guidelines. Our results show that the creeks and streams that feed the Hudson often pose a greater risk to the public than the river. Failing septic systems may contribute to the contamination we’ve observed in some areas.”

Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith said: “The Ulster County Department of Health maintains a Septic System Permit Program. This program completes field inspections of proposed lots, soil evaluations, review and approval of engineered septic system plans and the issuance of a Permit to Construct. The final step in the process is an inspection of the completed septic system for compliance with the approved plans. In addition, Ulster County has a complaint driven program to ensure that failing systems are repaired in a timely manner. These programs are vital in protecting the water in Ulster County from sewage contamination.”

“Proper home maintenance, including the care of your septic system, ensures and protects not only the public health of your household, but also our community,” said Kari Reiber, MD, Dutchess County Commissioner of Health. “It’s important for homeowners to be aware they have a septic system and to perform regular maintenance to keep them functioning optimally.”

“Homeowners with septic systems on their property play an important role in protecting our water quality, because bacteria and viruses from human waste can spread disease,” said Dr. Sherlita Amler, Commissioner of Health for Westchester County. “When a septic system is well-maintained and works properly, it keeps these pathogens from reaching our surface waters and impacting our health. Insufficiently treated sewage from a failing septic system can enter streams, lakes, rivers, or groundwater, which can contaminate our drinking water, our recreational waters and also harm the local ecology. If there are several failing septic systems in a community, the cumulative effect can become a major source of pollution.”

The EPA’s SepticSmart Initiative is a nation-wide public education effort that aims to inform homeowners living on properties serviced by septic systems on the importance of properly maintaining their septic system and provide resources to help homeowners make important decisions regarding their wastewater management needs. SepticSmart Week was started in 2013. The Riverkeeper campaign partnered with county Health Departments this year and this is the first related public outreach effort covering the Hudson River Watershed.

There are an estimated 484,000 private septic systems in counties that make up the Hudson River Watershed, according to Cornell University Water Resources Institute research. In rural areas outside of cities and villages, where public sewers and treatment plants are not common, most homes use private septic systems to treat their sewage.

Properly maintained septic systems can effectively prevent pathogens associated with sewage from entering groundwater or nearby streams and creeks. The Department of Environmental Conservation has identified failing systems as one of the Top 10 Water Quality Issues in New York State.

Signs of septic system failure include sewage backups into homes, bright green grass in the leach field area, pooling water or muddy soil around the septic system or in the basement, or a strong odor around the septic tank or leach field. Failing septic systems can contaminate nearby water with pathogens that can cause illness if people are exposed during recreation. Exposure to untreated sewage in water is the leading cause of illness from recreation in water.

Once a system fails, the remedy is typically replacement, costing several thousand dollars. Regular inspection and maintenance prevents failure and costs roughly $300 or less every three to five years. Maintenance includes pumping out accumulated solids to prevent overflow into the leach field.

Homeowners should also be aware that the land above their septic tanks, pipes and leach fields should remain clear, with no trees or shrubs, no parked cars and no discharges from roof drains. Roots, heavy weight or excess water can damage the system or prevent its proper functioning.

Finally, homeowners and their families or tenants should also ensure their systems function properly by conserving water and flushing nothing but toilet paper. Household chemicals and even personal or baby wipes labeled “flushable” may clog or disrupt the treatment process. Conserving water reduces strain on the system.

Homeowners can find additional information about maintaining their septic systems and protecting water quality at, and links to local resources at

Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries and protecting the drinking water supply of nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents. Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program provides the most comprehensive available information about when and where water in the Hudson River Watershed meets federal safe-swimming guidelines. To learn more, and see data gathered by Riverkeeper, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, CUNY Queens College and more than a dozen community partners, visit