You Flush It… We Treat It!

by: Sergio M. Abit Jr., PhD, Extension Specialist for Non-agricultural Soil Uses


” You Flush It… We Treat It” I couldn’t think of a blog site title more fitting that this! It perfectly captures the very idea of what could be expected out this blog site. Blogs in this site aim to serve as platform for constructive dialogue about the nasty stuffs that we flush in our toilets every day… all the way to their treatment and eventual disposal to the environment (including, of course, all the regulatory, engineering, biochemistry and maintenance issues in between). I intend to post at least one article each month.

So let us start with the basics… I will be writing a lot about “Onsite Wastewater Treatment System” or OWTS in this blog. What is an OWTS? OWTS (also called a “decentralized system”), refers to a system that treats and disperses wastewater at or near its source. Decentralized systems include those that serve individual homes (often known as a “Septic System”), a cluster of homes, a subdivision or small community as well as commercial and industrial complexes. A lot of these systems use proprietary technologies but most of them take advantage of the vast capacity of soil to remove or transform pollutants that are in the effluent as it percolates through the soil.

Let’s talk about why OWTSs are important in Oklahoma. Assuming that 40% of houses in Oklahoma have OWTS (I would argue that this is a conservative estimate) and that each of these houses produce 320 gallons of wastewater every day, this means that about 215 million gallons of wastewater have to be treated by various types of OWTS in Oklahoma EVERY DAY. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to the volume of water needed to fill 326 Olympic-size swimming pools or the volume needed to flood the entire land area Stillwater, OK (28 sq. miles) by around 0.4 inch of water. That is a LOT of wastewater that needs treatment by OWTSs in Oklahoma every day! Also, considering that onsite wastewater has (on average) 60 mg of nitrogen per liter, this also means that OWTSs in Oklahoma have to treat (or partially treat) 49 metric tons of total nitrogen every day. So are OWTSs important in Oklahoma? Absolutely!

So if OWTS’s are important in Oklahoma, why are they not front-and-center in mainstream state-level policy conversations, research initiatives and … the thoughts of citizens? I would throw-in a guess and my guess is that not enough efforts have been devoted to inform policy makers, researchers and citizens in Oklahoma about OWTS. To give you an example, everyone knows the last time their car’s motor oil has been changed but when I ask homeowners the last time they had their septic tank checked, the answers I get include: “only when I bought my house 10 years ago”; “sometimes”; “never!”; “do we have to?” and worse – “I am not sure if my house has a septic tank”. This clearly demonstrates that we have to step-up our efforts to promote awareness about OWTS in the State.

This brings me to my extension program. I run an extension program (more accurately –a one-man state-wide extension program) focused on OWTS. My program primarily aims to develop and administer a professional education program that will equip industry professionals (installers, soil profilers, sanitarians and state regulators) with scientific background about OWTS. I got big dreams for this extension program but for the short-term, I just want to raise awareness among citizens about OWTS, strive to further professionalize the OWTS installers in the State and provide technical support to state regulators.

My extension program is now ~1.5 years old and I would be remiss if I fail to acknowledge the support that I am getting from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and partnerships forged with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and the Oklahoma Certified Installers’ Association. Having such tremendous support and such awesome partners makes me very optimistic that the goals of my extension program would be realized.