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Case Study Location: Ohio: Cuyahoga County

Case Study Title: A Program for Identifying and Eliminating Failing Septic Systems

Minimum Control Measure: Illicit discharge detection and elimination

Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Brochure Cover PageFor more than 10 years, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health has implemented a program to permit and inspect septic systems (onsite wastewater treatment systems) to reduce the number of failing systems in operation, thereby reducing flows of inadequately treated household sewage to storm drain systems and receiving waters.

Location: Ohio: Cuyahoga County
Annual Rainfall: 35.4 inches
Population: 1,393,978
Year the Program Started: 1993

Contact Information:

Harry Stark
Water Quality Specialist
Cuyahoga County Board of Health Exit EPA Site
5550 Ventura Dr
Parma, OH 44130
Phone: (216) 201-2001 x1205  


Program Overview and Background

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health developed a permitting program for septic systems (which the County calls onsite wastewater treatment systems or OWTSs) that involved conducting inspections of newly installed and existing septic systems, registering installers and haulers, providing education and outreach for septic systems operators, and conducting extensive water quality monitoring to measure trends and target areas for investigation. Since the program's inception, 2,400 failing systems have been replaced and 5,000 have been eliminated by installing sanitary sewers. The Board of Health estimates that 6,500 systems currently in use are not properly treating household sewage (out of more than 13,000 spetic systems operating in Cuyahoga County).

Homeowner's Guide to Household Sewage Treatment Systems Cover Page

Adverse geologic and hydrologic factors prevalent in this area cause most septic systems to discharge directly to receiving waters, ditches, or sewers. About half of the systems operating in the county actually provide on-lot treatment and dissipation of household sewage.

The first sewage regulations in the area, adopted in 1936, dictated septic tank sizing, filter bed sizing, and minimum lot size requirements. Statewide requirements in the mid-1970s allowed for off-lot discharge of wastewater into receiving waters or storm sewers, if necessary. In 1978 permits were no longer granted for systems with off-lot discharge. In 1987 the county developed sewage system evaluation procedures and implemented a point-of-sale inspection program. The county established the Water Pollution Control Program in 1992 and the following year amended the sewage disposal rules with additional requirements for septic system design, maintenance, and abandonment. The operation and maintenance program began in 1993.

The Board of Health's Household Sewage Program, which costs approximately $500,000 annually, employs 17 district sanitarians who are responsible for septic system evaluations, water quality sampling, educational outreach, and other public health programs, such as school inspections, public swimming pool inspections, solid waste programs, nuisance investigations, and indoor air programs. The Board of Health is in the process of establishing a Watershed Protection Unit that would be responsible for inspections, educational outreach, and water quality sampling for septic systems under the operation and maintenance program, as well as storm water activities, commercial septic system inspections, beach and marina programs, and private water system inspections. Initial staffing of 10 registered sanitarians will be allocated for the unit, and staffing needs will be reassessed annually.

Operation and Maintenance Program

Image of staff inspecting an outfall The Board of Health maintains files on existing septic systems, including drawings, evaluation reports, and correspondence. A database that tracks system information, as well as permit number and evaluation and maintenance history, was created. The county also tracks systems that are abandoned when sanitary sewers are installed. The county issues annual permits to owners of septic systems. A regulatory fee of $40 is paid at the time of permit renewal.

Approximately 2,000 inspections are conducted annually, although this number varies from year-to-year. This number includes full system evaluations as well as basic system assessments, which involve a one-on-one educational outreach assessment to teach a homeowner how the system operates and how it should be maintained. Inspections are scheduled in areas of high priority, based on monitoring results and discussions with local officials. The county notifies homeowners in a project area of the pending inspections and holds educational meetings. Once the systems in the area have been tested, results are forwarded to local officials, who decide whether failing systems should be replaced or residents should be connected to the sanitary sewer system. Less frequently, inspections are conducted to investigate nuisance reports and for point-of-sale evaluations.

When failed systems are identified and correction is required, financial assistance is available to homeowners to offset some of the costs. Low-interest loans, with rates as low as 5 percent below the prime rate, are offered through Ohio EPA and local banks for installation of on-lot systems or for connection to the sanitary sewer.

Registration for Installers and Haulers

The Board of Health registers all septic installers and haulers that operate in Cuyahoga County. The haulers and installers must obtain an annual license to operate in the Board of Health's jurisdiction. Once they are licensed, the installers and haulers are placed on a list that is available for distribution to residents who need to have their septic tank pumped or a new system installed. Each septic system installation requires an installation permit by a licensed installer. Once the system is installed, the installer then contacts the Board of Health for an inspection.

Haulers dump their waste at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District Wastewater Treatment facilities located in Cuyahoga County. The Regional Sewer District does not allow a hauler to dump their waste unless they have a current license from the Board of Health. This cooperation allows for the licensing and tracking of the haulers working in Cuyahoga County. Each month the Regional Sewer District and the haulers send pumping receipts for each address that was pumped; this information is then updated in the septic system database.

Education and Outreach

Education and outreach is a significant part of the Board of Health's efforts in implementing the operation and maintenance program. County staff target property owners, potential buyers, and realtors, among others. Information is provided about the evaluation process, repair and replacement requirements, and general system maintenance in the form of PowerPoint presentations, pamphlets, videos, and question-and-answer sessions. This information is distributed during evaluations and at community meetings and events.

Water Quality Monitoring

County Water Quality Program Brochure Cover Page

The county has established 53 permanent water quality-monitoring stations to analyze long-term trends in constituents such as fecal coliform bacteria, biochemical oxygen demand, suspended solids, phosphorus, ammonia, and conductivity. Biological monitoring for macroinvertebrates and habitat indices is also conducted. The county manages these data, which include approximately 6,000 sample results, in a database that can produce water quality results by watershed, municipality, location, or date. This information can be combined with other information being tracked by the county, such as outfall locations, street address, photos, and report and investigation information. Since the passage of the NPDES Phase II Stormwater Rule, the county has partnered with municipalities in the area to conduct dry-weather sampling at designated MS4 outfalls and has assisted some of these communities with outfall mapping.

Support for Phase II Communities

In 2003, 55 communities in Cuyahoga County were regulated under the NPDES Phase II Stormwater Rule. These communities were able to benefit from the Board of Health's inspections, databases, and education and outreach as part of their illicit discharge detection and elimination minimum control measure. The Board of Health established a program to assist NPDES-regulated communities in locating all MS4 outfall locations in their community. Additionally, the Board of Health assists the communities with developing and implementing their illicit discharge detection and elimination programs.

Image of fishing sampling

The process of inventorying MS4 outfall locations involves walking all surface waterways, taking digital photographs and recording other data, such as watershed, city, stream name outfall is located on, location of outfall, GPS coordinates, shape of outfall, size of pipe, condition of pipe, pipe material, and what type of pipe is it (MS4, unknown, etc) on a field assessment form for each outfall location. These data are entered into a new regional outfall database and a report is generated for each community that includes information about each outfall and outfall maps containing all MS4 outfall identification numbers. The database is linked to the Board of Health GIS system; maps are produced both in-house and with the assistance of the County Planning Commission.

The outfall surveys are conducted during dry weather periods (72 hours with no rainfall). If an outfall has flow during the dry weather screening process, a sample is taken and analyzed for a variety of parameters, including fecal coliform, to assist the city in identifying locations where possible cross-connections or other sanitary sewer problems might exist. The monitoring is performed to aid communities in establishing a water quality baseline and prioritizing their outfall locations with respect to pollutant levels.

The communities will implement their illicit discharge detection and elimination plans initially on those outfalls with the highest level of bacterial contamination. The Board of Health also assists the communities with locating specific illicit discharges by performing other water quality testing upstream of the outfall and dye testing individual homes. At this time, the Board of Health has performed outfall inventories for 16 communities and is under contract to inventory another 15 communities over the next two years.

Public Education and Public Involvement

The CCBH educational component includes a number of outreach efforts, including activities at schools, homeowner seminars, watershed festivals, and printed materials. These outreach activities provide the general public and community officials with information on nonpoint source pollution, local watersheds, and biological, physical, and chemical water quality summaries for the region.

Adult community outreach efforts include evening seminars, at which a variety of issues are discussed, depending on the audience and community needs. The Board of Health developed numerous presentations and informational packets that describe septic system and storm water issues, including the effects of failing septic system and storm water pollution and information about Phase II of the NPDES program. All of these outreach materials emphasize practices that individuals can implement to assist their communities in preventing pollution and water quality impairments caused by everyday activities.

The school program involves educating students (pre-K through college) about water quality issues and getting them involved in biological and chemical monitoring of surface waters near their school districts. Classroom sessions with younger students include hands-on lessons in macroinvertebrate sampling, including equipment demonstration and examination of preserved macroinvertebrate samples. Young children love seeing and touching the preserved bugs and are given an explanation as to why they are important to water quality. Sessions with older students include both in-class and field activities; the in-class lessons cover such topics as water quality, pollution, and the impacts of everyday activities on water quality, including erosion and flooding problems. The EnviroScape model is used to demonstrate some of these impacts. The field exercises involve students in physical assessments and macroinvertebrate sampling.

Currently, there is one college course that emphasizes ecology and water quality. The Board of Health works with this class by performing in-class lectures and assigning a location for students to conduct water quality sampling. The class is given a copy of the Board of Health's Quality Assurance Management Plan for water quality sampling. The students perform field exercises and provide the Board of Health with a report at the completion of work.

Additional Materials Related to this Case Study:

Additional Resources and Tools for this Minimum Control Measure

EPA presents this case study as an example to which Phase I and Phase II municipal stormwater programs can refer as they develop their own stormwater programs. Although EPA has reviewed the case studies, they should not be considered officially endorsed by the Agency and are not intended to represent full compliance with EPA’s stormwater Phase II minimum control measures. Each community must decide on the appropriate BMPs necessary to meet its unique permit requirements and local conditions.

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