EPA Awards $1.35 Million Grant to Multi-Institutional Team for Septic Adaptation Research
Resources for the Future scholars Margaret Walls and Yanjun (Penny) Liao are part of a team that will spend the next two years researching the compound issues of climate change and septic failure in coastal Maryland.
Today, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded researchers at the University of Maryland, George Mason University, and Resources for the Future (RFF) a $1.35 million grant to assess and find solutions to the compound risks of climate change and septic system failure in traditionally underserved communities.
Beginning this summer and continuing through mid-2025, the research team will work with the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP) to collect data on flood risk and septic health on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The team will combine its findings with existing data to identify the areas most at risk of septic failure—and its related public health issues—due to climate change.
“Climate-driven sea-level rise and the flooding it produces can cause septic systems to fail, contaminate drinking water, and cause illnesses,” said RFF Senior Fellow Margaret Walls, who is involved with the project and directs RFF’s work on environmental justice and climate risk and resilience. “Pinpointing at-risk communities and providing data showing why these communities are at risk in the first place can help decisionmakers develop climate adaptation measures equitably.”
The researchers emphasize that Maryland’s rural, coastal areas where both septic systems and flooding are common also tend to be home to vulnerable communities due in part to historical development and public infrastructure policies. This new research may help make the case for expanding public sewer access to at-risk communities, which could both improve public health and household financial outcomes.
“A large part of this work is addressing past discrimination,” said RFF Fellow Yanjun (Penny) Liao, who is part of the research team. “By collecting historical maps and data, as well as community input on the compound risks of septic health and climate change, we’ll be working to ensure that the places and people who were once left out of this conversation are now an integral part of it.”
Walls and Liao will focus specifically on estimating the value of sewer systems as captured by property value and community preference. Using this analysis, the pair will evaluate a range of equitable and cost-effective policy options to address climate-driven septic issues: for example, by replacing septic with sewer, upgrading septic systems where possible, and even facilitating relocation from particularly at-risk areas.
The team will eventually share its research findings with communities and state and local agencies who can put the data and recommendations into action.
“Research like this is only one of the first steps in addressing past and present wrongs,” Walls said. “There are many issues related to climate change and water quality to address in this region. But making sure that decisionmakers have the analytical tools needed to make good, fair policy is very important.”
The project, “Septic to Sewer? Justice-Focused Strategies for Addressing Coastal Septic Failures under Sea-level Rise and Increased Flooding,” is part of EPA’s Cumulative Health Impacts at the Intersection of Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and Vulnerable Populations/Life Stages: Community-Based Research for Solutions funding opportunity.
Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.
Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.
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Margaret A. Walls
Margaret Walls is a senior fellow at RFF. Her current research focuses on issues related to resilience and adaptation to extreme events, ecosystem services, and conservation, parks and public lands.
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