Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 2132–2144 | Cite as

Contamination of estuaries from failing septic tank systems: difficulties in scaling up from monitored individual systems to cumulative impact

  • Phillip GearyEmail author
  • Steven Lucas
Groundwater under threat from diffuse contaminants: improving on-site sanitation, agriculture and water supply practices


Aquaculture in many coastal estuaries is threatened by diffuse sources of runoff from different land use activities. The poor performance of septic tank systems (STS), as well as runoff from agriculture, may contribute to the movement of contaminants through ground and surface waters to estuaries resulting in oyster contamination, and following their consumption, impacts to human health. In monitoring individual STS in sensitive locations, it is possible to show that nutrients and faecal contaminants are transported through the subsurface in sandy soils off-site with little attenuation. At the catchment scale however, there are always difficulties in discerning direct linkages between failing STS and water contamination due to processes such as effluent dilution, adsorption, precipitation and vegetative uptake. There is often substantial complexity in detecting and tracing effluent pathways from diffuse sources to water bodies in field studies. While source tracking as well as monitoring using tracers may assist in identifying potential pathways from STS to surface waters and estuaries, there are difficulties in scaling up from monitored individual systems to identify their contribution to the cumulative impact which may be apparent at the catchment scale. The processes which may be obvious through monitoring and dominate at the individual scale may be masked and not readily discernible at the catchment scale due to impacts from other land use activities.


Septic tank systems Contamination Wastewater management Aquaculture Groundwater Water pollution Catchment 



The assistance of the NSW Department of Local Government, The University of Newcastle, Port Stephens Council and residents in Salt Ash, NSW in this project work is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks also to Olivier Rey-Lescure who drafted Figs. 2, 3 and 4.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environmental and Life SciencesUniversity of NewcastleCallaghanAustralia
  2. 2.The Tom Farrell Institute for the EnvironmentUniversity of NewcastleCallaghanAustralia

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