Old equipment and rising sea levels can mean serious problems for septic systems -- and pollution of local waterways. For some low-lying areas on the Georgia coast, switching over to a city sewer system could be the only solution. But sewers come with their own problems and costs, and they’re under threat from sea level rise too. GPB’s Emily Jones reports.

Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water-Sewer Commission Executive Director Andrew Burroughs and Director of Engineering Todd Klein stand by the wet well at the Academy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water-Sewer Commission Executive Director Andrew Burroughs and Director of Engineering Todd Klein stand by the wet well at the Academy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Its low walls mean water from a flood could infiltrate it.

Credit: Emily Jones/GPB News

This story is part of the Pulitzer Center's Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines

A small branch of the East River outside Brunswick curves awfully close to the neighborhood of Ellis Point. Built in the 1950s, the houses sit pretty low, and they’re all on septic systems.

Reba Reyna has lived here for almost 50 years.

“It rained continuously for over a week,” Reyna said of storms late last year. “Septic system backs up, therefore, it's a health hazard.”

She’s worried about her drinking water. Many of the houses in the area use well water, and many of the old lots are too small to have both a well and a septic tank by today’s standards. So Reyna and some of her neighbors are pushing to join the local sewer system.

That would be expensive, but then so is the alternative.

“The septic system is getting old, and it's awfully expensive to replace one,” said Reyna.

MORE: Replacing Septic Systems An Effective But Expensive Way To Cleaner Water

The sewer authority for this area — the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water-Sewer Commission — is looking at extending sewer lines to places like Ellis Point that have persistent problems with their septic systems. But switching to sewer isn’t a magic fix. Higher water levels and stronger, more frequent storms threaten coastal sewers, too.

You can see the threat clearly at the Academy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, where all the wastewater from the Glynn County mainland flows into a low concrete structure with an open top. 

Executive Director Andrew Burroughs said when Hurricane Irma caused widespread, disastrous flooding a few years ago, things got dicey.

“It was inches from being into the wet well,” he said. “It” was seawater; the wet well contains sewage. 

“It was creeping up the wall there. And they had somebody down here basically on standby to let them know if it ever breached,” Burroughs said.

Flooding would have damaged the electrical panels that help manage the system. And the salt water would mess up the bacteria that treats the wastewater. Talk about a health hazard.

EARLIER: Aging Septic, Rising Seas Threaten Georgia Waterways

Burroughs said they are raising things up and out of the way of the next flood.

“So when we're doing some of this rehab, we're looking at elevating some of these panels to get them out of the way and also maybe extending these concrete walls up to make sure water doesn't come in there from storms or sea level rise,” he said.

They’ve got a grant from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority to help make those changes, which is key, because sewer system improvements are expensive. And there are always lots of them, and lots of maintenance, to be done.

Burroughs said that can make it hard to plan ahead for future problems from future sea level rise.

“Unfortunately, in the water and sewer business, a lot of times we have to be more reactive than proactive because we have enough current problems that it's hard to always consider those things for the future,” he said.

And the list of current problems to fix is long: low-lying equipment and wells, old pipes that could spring leaks, and, yes, getting sewer service to places currently on faulty septic like Reba Reyna’s neighborhood of Ellis Point. 

But that last one requires literal buy-in from the homeowners. Reyna said she’s heard mixed feelings among her neighbors.

“A lot of the people do want sewer,” she said. “Lot of the people don't want it because they don't want the expense. They would love to have it if they could get it for free.”

But ideally the water sewer commission would like residents to pay for the new sewer line. They did a survey, and found not enough residents are willing to pay for it. It could still happen, but only if they can find a source of money, like a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

And in the meantime, Ellis Point residents will hope their septic systems don’t fail — something the ever-rising water makes more and more likely.