For every new home with sewer service in Anne Arundel County, another is built with a septic system, a trend that alarms operators of the county's public sewer system.
As the county struggles to remove pollutants such as nitrogen from wastes that enter the sewers, its gains are offset by private septic systems, which do not have to meet the same standards, said Thomas H. Neel, director of the county Department of Utilities.
"We're forgetting about a large portion of our sewage disposal," Neel said. "It's something that needs to be better managed."
Last week, the Maryland Department of the Environment encouraged septic system owners to ensure their systems are in proper working order. About one in five Maryland households -- and about two infive in Anne Arundel County -- rely on septic systems. About 17,000 of those no longer work properly, MDE officials said in a June 11 bulletin.
Septic owners should inspect their systems regularly and have them pumped out once every three years, Secretary of the Environment Robert Perciasepe said.
"Proper maintenance makes economic sense and is one way individual citizens can help clean up the Chesapeake Bay," Perciasepe said.
Some sure signs of disrepair include water forming ponds over the septic system's drain field or a patch of unusually green grass. The system also may be failing if drains and toilets empty slowly.
"In the last few years, we have made tremendous strides in cleaning up the discharges from sewage treatment plants," Perciasepe added. "It is important that homeowners make sure their individual 'treatment plants' are working as they should."
The MDE cautions that septic owners should be careful about what they pour into their sinks and toilets. Leftover paints, degreasers, solvents and other household chemicals can damage a system and pollute ground water.
Although Neel lauded the MDE's efforts, he said he doesn't "think just going out with a news release and saying people have got to take better care of [septic systems] will get things done. For most people, it's out of sight, out of mind."
Neel said his department, which manages the county's seven sewage treatment plants, is developing a plan to create "management districts" for septic systems in Anne Arundel County. Neel hopes to have proposals ready during the next year. They have been under development for the past two years.
Under Neel's plan, the county could take over individual septic systems, pumping them out and making repairs when necessary. Another option would establish routine inspections and require the homeowners to make necessary repairs. Under either option, septic owners would be charged a fee for the service, Neel said.
The idea is not new. Former County Executive O. James `D Lighthizer issued a 13-point growth-management plan several years ago that recommended management districts.
"If you lay new sewer lines all over this county, it could really spur growth," Neel said. "To control growth, on-site management districts are a positive thing."
Homeowners can learn more about how to care for their septic system by calling the Maryland Department of the Environment at 631-3652.