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Local Tip: Understanding and maintaining septic systems

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By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

A seldom discussed, but integral part of a home water program, is the septic system.

A typical septic system consists of a buried tank and a drain field, and this infrastructure is the only form of wastewater treatment for homes that are not connected to centralized sewer systems.

According to Tom Moore of the Gallatin City-County Health Department, there are an estimated 1,133 individual septic systems in the Big Sky area, creating roughly 300 gallons of sewage each day. The remaining households are connected to the Big Sky Water and Sewer District where all effluent is treated and discharged through irrigation, while the remaining sludge is converted into land-applicable compost.

For those relying on septic systems to treat wastewater from your home, it’s critical to follow several maintenance protocols in order to keep your system operating efficiently and effectively, and to prevent hazards from entering the local ecosystem.

“If designed, maintained and appropriately sized, [septic systems] are an approved method to effectively treat wastewater,” said Lori Christenson, director of the Gallatin City-County Health Department. “It’s a pretty simple science.”

Wastewater from the home travels into the septic tank and clarified effluent is pumped out into the drain field, where naturally occurring bacteria and microbes break down the waste. The water percolates through the soil as a natural filtration system, eventually returning to the groundwater. Solids remain inside the tank and require periodic removal in order to keep things operating correctly.

The county does not have regulations on septic system maintenance, but Christenson recommends pumping the tanks every three to five years in order to keep waste from backing up in your toilets and sinks, or pooling on the ground surface. Further maintenance is recommended for advanced, pressurized systems. For these units, the lines should be flushed every five years to remove sediment or grease, and filters should be changed every six months.

Christenson added that homeowners shouldn’t dispose of grease, diapers or other unflushables, and that they need to be aware of where their drain fields are, and avoid driving over them to prevent soil compaction.

On occasion, septic systems do fail, resulting in waste backing up in the home, surface pooling, or direct wastewater dumping into the groundwater system. This latter failure is a particular concern as it can go unnoticed.

“We’re potentially seeing an increase in trace pharmaceuticals in the valley,” Christenson said, adding that unless specifically designed to do so, even a functioning septic system can’t treat pharmaceuticals or nitrates like a wastewater facility can.

“We’re concerned because of increased transmission of illness and disease and the cumulative effects of nitrates and pharmaceuticals,” she said. “There’s an impact on overall water quality.”

To learn more about maintenance for your septic system, visit

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