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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

Flanders Realty Group

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February 23, 2018

2/10/2018 7:25:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live
S.O.S. (Save Our Septics)
Ted Rulseh

There's a major lake pollution preventer -but also a potential source of pollution - on every developed lake property. It's the septic system that receives and treats our household sewage.

Septic systems rely on soil bacteria to break down waste material. It's the same basic biological process that occurs in city wastewater treatment plants, except it's slower and less controllable - the effectiveness of treatment depends largely on soil conditions.

The heart of a septic system isn't really the septic tank, which basically collects the solid material in wastes. What really matters is the drainfield that receives the water flowing out of the tank. In a properly functioning system, that water is largely clear, but it is still high in organic wastes that need to be broken down. In the drainfield, the liquid passes through underground piping, spreads out and soaks into the soil, where beneficial bacteria go to work on it.

In a properly functioning septic system, this soil-based treatment is effective. Some nutrients, notably nitrogen and phosphorus, ultimately make their way into the lake by way of the groundwater system, but a great deal less than if the wastewater had gone untreated.

The trouble is that septic systems get old and can malfunction or fail, especially if improperly installed, misused, or not professionally maintained. If, for example, the drainfield soil becomes clogged with waste solids over time, poorly treated wastewater can emerge on the soil surface, where it can be washed directly into the lake, carrying nutrients and harmful bacteria along.

Given that many homes and cottages around our lakes have been there for decades, the odds are high that some septic systems are not performing optimally. The trouble is that repairing or replacing these systems can be quite expensive. As with many issues related to lake protection, the best course is prevention.

Inspections conducted by septic system service contractors can reveal issues in early stages where remedies are not too costly. Apart from that, those contractors are a great source of advice on proper "care and feeding" that will keep a system functioning well for many years. Here are few items they are likely to suggest:

Protect the drainfield. Avoid running downspouts over it. Keep it clear of deep-rooted trees or shrubs. Don't run vehicles over it or subject it to heavy foot traffic.

Use water with discretion. Excess water use can overload the drainfield. Avoid running faucets needlessly. Fix leaky plumbing fixtures. Space laundry loads out over the week. Shorten showers. Use low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators.

Be careful what you flush or put down the sink. Use detergents and cleaners that are free of phosphorus. Avoid using anti-bacterial or harsh chemical cleaners, as these can destroy the helpful microorganisms on which treatment depends.

Get it pumped. The septic tank should be pumped out by a professional at least every three years.

There's more to know - it's easy to find information online by searching under "septic system maintenance." Better still, ask your septic system pro for advice.

Ted Rulseh, who lives on Birch Lake in Harshaw, is the author of the "The Lake Where You Live," a blog where readers can learn about the lakes they love - the history, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, magic, charm. Visit Ted may be reached at

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