It’s hard for anyone to manage and value what they can’t see.
Groundwater is often called our hidden resource. That’s why it’s critical to bring engaging and visual groundwater education to the 45 million septic system and private well users in the United States through U.S. EPA’s SepticSmart Week (September 20-24, 2021) and other year-round activities.
A program based at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign leverages both in-person and online events to share expertise and increase public awareness of domestic water and wastewater issues.
Because improperly managed septic systems can be a source of contamination for drinking water supplies, program manager Steve Wilson frequently turns to materials available through the SepticSmart program to help raise awareness and communicate septic system best practices.
Day to day ISWS geologists, engineers, and hydrologists conduct applied research on groundwater and water quality topics as well as provide support to individuals who are searching for well and groundwater-related information or who have questions about local water quality issues.
This work extends far beyond the borders of Illinois. In addition to these roles, ISWS staff conduct nationwide outreach and education to private well owners and those with septic systems via the PrivateWellClass.org initiative.
A Model for Outreach and Education
ISWS staff participate in events that reach a wide range of stakeholders but have found live demonstrations using sand tank models to be most engaging. Imagine a fish tank filled with sand, gravel, and miniature wells, septic tanks, and houses. These models show how groundwater flows and gets contaminated as well as how septic systems function.
“When participants can see the dyed water flowing though the ground and reaching a well or stream, it has a dramatic effect, usually leading to lots of questions,” says Wilson.
Wilson also shares that ISWS staff find it particularly rewarding to work with school-age children. His staff typically attend the Illinois State Fair where “Conservation World” provides many hands-on booths for children and adults alike. In 2019, staff engaged with over 200 well owners during the 10-day fair and demonstrated shallow groundwater contamination to over 500 children.
The Clean Water Celebration is another opportunity for ISWS staff to introduce these important concepts to young minds. Held annually at the Peoria, IL civic center, the event brings together over 2,500 middle school children where we use our sand tank models, well components, and hand pump to provide a memorable hands-on experience.
Inspired by these efforts, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) purchased sand tank models for their field staff to use in outreach and education work across the country. RCAP is a national network of non-profit organizations working to provide technical assistance, training, resources, and support to rural communities across the United States, tribal lands, and U.S. territories.
Funded in partnership with RCAP through a grant from U.S. EPA, PrivateWellClass.org is an online, multimedia initiative that annually reaches more than 27,000 homeowners and stakeholders who serve the domestic well and septic user.
The initiative includes regular webinars, interactive online educational sessions, on private well or septic system best practices. Wilson shared that the webinars are held for private well and septic system owners to “develop their understanding of system maintenance and water quality protection as well as ask specific questions.”
Industry-wide events have also helped PrivateWellClass.org to increase awareness of well and septic issues. The team participates in the National Ground Water Association’s Groundwater Awareness Week in March and, of course, SepticSmart Week in September. These events are extremely popular and feed on each participant’s efforts, especially through social media.
PrivateWellClass.org additionally offers resources to help concerned citizens and professionals alike to develop their knowledge of groundwater issues and better serve their local communities.
“Together we can protect public health and groundwater resources. It starts with education,” says Wilson.
Last modified: September 15, 2023