Coastal Georgia officials know something important their counterparts in other states don't.
They know where the area's septic tanks are located.
It sounds pretty basic, but septic systems predate desktop computers. And although about one in four homes nationwide rely on septic, most communities haven't digitized the records they've created on paper about these out-of-sight, out-of-mind systems that are critical to public health.
But coastal Georgia has Welstrom, a mapping database of the locations of almost 60,000 septic tanks from Chatham to Camden counties, which includes searchable information about when the systems were installed, when they were last serviced and how big they are. In all there are 200 possible fields of info attached to each septic entry.
"Georgia's database blows most other efforts away," said Mark Risse, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant director. "To my knowledge, no other state has such a comprehensive effort. Other states have established databases over the last decade but almost all of them just enter information on newly permitted systems so they are relatively incomplete. When I or others have presented on this effort at national/regional meetings, we are usually met with envy that we have been able to do this."
Georgia started working on this database almost 10 years ago and it was ultimately funded by a series of half a dozen grants totaling more than $350,000.
A wiry, dance-loving UGA Marine Extension worker based in Athens, Doug Atkinson, is largely responsible for getting the effort started and keeping it going.
Atkinson first dug in on Glynn County. Like many quietly heroic efforts, his was filled with long stretches of boring work.
"What was mainly entailed was going to their health department, going into all their filing cabinets and looking in the historic permit and taking each one out, putting that onto a map and entering it into the database," Risse said.
Some were handwritten, others inevitably misfiled. Some dated to the 1970s when permits were first required for installation. Some systems were even older, and the records showed only repairs done since the permitting requirement was instated. In the middle of the 2000s the counties switched to a 911 address system, creating another data entry headache. Atkinson slogged through, finishing Glynn and applying for the next grant to pay to digitize the next county, and the next, and the next.
"Without Doug Atkinson's early efforts, a task like this would have been well beyond the scope most folks would be willing to consider," Risse said.
Atkinson died in 2016 at age 59. His obituary noted his "diligent efforts to improve water quality had a profound effect on coastal Georgia."
Risse spoke at his funeral.
"I told his family and friends everything about the important work he was doing and committed to making sure that it got done, which I thought was going to be a lot easier than it was."
Now all the first tier coastal counties are entered. Of the next layer of counties inland, only Charlton remains to be completed.
The result is like giving researchers X-ray vision.
Septic systems send wastewater from the sinks, toilets, showers, the washing machine and dishwasher, into a buried water-tight tank in the yard. There the solids settle and the liquid wastewater flows into a nearby drain field. Soil microbes then treat it as it percolates through, ultimately discharging to groundwater or rivers and streams if they're close by.
Septic owners know it when their system fails completely. They see and smell it. But systems that are partially compromised can limp along, discharging poorly treated waste with little warning.
"When it's not functioning properly, you can get all sorts of excess nutrients and harmful pathogens entering your groundwater, your surface water, your well water even, that you don't want," said Courtney Balling, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia who works with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. "And so knowing where those tanks are, knowing how old they are and knowing what the risk of them failing is, is really important."
Researchers are also looking ahead to future risks.
"And then you can overlay different data layers with that," said Kelly Hill, green growth specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Coastal Management Program. "That shows where sea level rise or other flooding scenarios could impact some of the more vulnerable septic areas. So that's kind of a really good resource that we have."
Septic Attitudes in Bryan
With septic systems now mapped, researchers have begun probing residents' understanding of them.
Jill Gamble, the coastal resilience specialist and a public service faculty member at the University of Georgia, conducted surveys of 30 Bryan County residents who own septic systems.
Her preliminary results showed most people serviced their septic only when there was a problem, not every five years or so as is recommended. They didn't think flooding had increased in Bryan and were split about whether they thought it would increase.
"Most people knew what sea level rise was and felt comfortable with that concept and did feel like sea level rise would harm future generations in Bryan County," Gamble said. "However, like we've seen with national polling, they don't believe necessarily that it's going to harm them personally. So they believe that it's happening. They think that it will impact someone, but not necessarily themselves."
Septic systems are typically not covered under homeowners insurance or flood insurance, leaving these coastal homeowners even more vulnerable to flood damage in a warming world.
"Sea level rise will affect really everyone who lives in our coastal communities because what it is doing is raising the starting point for when we get a hurricane," Gamble said. "So if we have a foot of sea level rise, that means that storm surge is launching from 1 foot higher than it was in the past. And so then that storm surge can reach farther inland and at a greater magnitude with more intensity."
Through a quirk of Georgia law, municipalities can't require maintenance of non-mechanical systems like septic. But they can offer incentives for regular maintenance or mechanisms that trigger an inspection, like the sale of a house.
Local governments can help residents and protect water quality by telling people that they have these systems on their property and educating them on their maintenance, said Katie Hill, an environmental attorney at the University of Georgia River Basin Center.
"You know, we're talking about extending the working life of the system, saving money," she said. "You know, pumping out the system costs a little bit, but it's going to save you money in the long run, most likely, because you'll be more likely to avoid expensive repairs."