Bacteria lives in our water in many forms, the same way it lives in our bodies. Most species of bacteria are useful. However, harmful bacteria—known as pathogens—can find their way into our waterbodies. Just like they can find their way into our bodies and make us sick, harmful bacteria can make our lakes, rivers, and streams sick too.

Bacteria can come from a variety of different places, including animal waste (domestic pets, agricultural operations), overloaded waste treatment systems, human sewage from failing on-site sewage systems (septic systems), and leaky sewer pipes. When these sources go unchecked, harmful bacteria can end up in waterbodies through rainfall, erosion, and improper soil filtration.

Bacteria from human waste is kept in check using soil treatment septic systems and regular maintenance. When working properly, septic systems run all the water leaving your house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank(s). The Vermillion River Watershed Joint Powers Organization (JPO) completed DNA testing on E. coli bacteria samples taken from the Vermillion River and found human DNA as the source of the E. coli bacteria. When maintained and running properly, septic systems should effectively remove most pollutants including harmful bacteria like E. Coli and viruses.

Conducting regular maintenance on your septic system is the best way to ensure the water you’re using in your home isn’t contributing to unintentional water pollution. If there is no information on file at the County, your system might be very old. Some ways to tell if your system is failing is the presence of pooled water or marshy areas around your property, slow drainage or weak flush, overgrown or dead vegetation, green outer area around the septic tank, or drains that constantly back up.

Replacing your septic system might be necessary in certain cases. If you have any general questions about septic systems or want to know what kind of system you have, please contact Environmental Services at 952-496-8177 in Scott County or Environmental Resources at 952-891-7000 in Dakota County.

Together, we can work to help improve our local waterbodies, and be a little more conscious of our impact on the waters we see flowing past us every day.