Influence of septic systems on stream base flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin near Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, 2012

Scientific Investigations Report 2014-5144
National Water Census and National Streamflow Information Program
By:  and 



Septic systems were identified at 241,733 locations in a 2,539-square-mile (mi2) study area that includes all or parts of 12 counties in the Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, area. Septic system percolation may locally be an important component of streamflow in small drainage basins where it augments natural groundwater recharge, especially during extreme low-flow conditions. The amount of groundwater reaching streams depends on how much is intercepted by plants or infiltrates to deeper parts of the groundwater system that flows beyond a basin divide and does not discharge into streams within a basin.

The potential maximum percolation from septic systems in the study area is 62 cubic feet per second (ft3/s), of which 52 ft3/s is in the Chattahoochee River Basin and 10 ft3/s is in the Flint River Basin. These maximum percolation rates represent 0.4 to 5.7 percent of daily mean streamflow during the 2011–12 period at the farthest downstream gaging site (station 02338000) on the Chattahoochee River, and 0.5 to 179 percent of daily mean streamflow at the farthest downstream gaging site on the Flint River (02344350).

To determine the difference in base flow between basins having different septic system densities, hydrograph separation analysis was completed using daily mean streamflow data at streamgaging stations at Level Creek (site 02334578), with a drainage basin having relatively high septic system density of 101 systems per square mile, and Woodall Creek (site 02336313), with a drainage basin having relatively low septic system density of 18 systems per square mile. Results indicated that base-flow yield during 2011–12 was higher at the Level Creek site, with a median of 0.47 cubic feet per second per square mile ([ft3/s]/mi2), compared to a median of 0.16 (ft3/s)/mi2, at the Woodall Creek site. At the less urbanized Level Creek site, there are 515 septic systems with a daily maximum percolation rate of 0.14 ft3/s, accounting for 11 percent of the base flow in September 2012. At the more urban Woodall Creek site, there are 50 septic systems with an average daily maximum percolation rate of 0.0097 ft3/s, accounting for 5 percent of base flow in September 2012.

Streamflow measurements at 133 small drainage basins (less than 5 mi2 in area) during September 2012 indicated no statistically significant difference in streamflow or specific conductance between basins having high and low density of septic systems (HDS and LDS, respectively). The median base-flow yield was 0.04 (f3/s)/mi2 for HDS sites, ranging from 0 to 0.52 (ft3/s)/mi2, and 0.10 (ft3/s)/mi2 for LDS sites, ranging from 0 to 0.49 (ft3/s)/mi2. A Wilcoxon rank-sum test indicated the median base-flow yields for HDS and LDS sites were not statistically different, with a p-value of 0.345.

Because of the large size of the study area and associated variations in basin characteristics, data collected in September 2012 were also evaluated on the basis of the basins physical characteristics in an attempt to reduce or eliminate other basin characteristics that might affect base flow. Basins were evaluated based on geologic area, four geographic subareas, and 45-meter (147.6 ft) buffer zone; there were no statistically significant differences between median base-flow yield for HDS and LDS basins. It is probable that detection of the contribution from septic system percolation in base flow at many of the sites visited in September 2012 was obscured by a combination of the limitations of measurement accuracy and evapotranspiration. Detection of septic system percolation may also have been complicated by leaky water and sewer mains, which may have resulted in higher streamflows in LDS basins relative to HDS basins.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Influence of septic systems on stream base flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin near Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, 2012
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2014-5144
DOI 10.3133/sir20145144
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) South Atlantic Water Science Center
Description viii, 68 p.
Country United States
State Georgia
City Atlanta
Other Geospatial Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin
Scale 100000
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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