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US Census Moves Forward on “Septic or Sewer” Question

NOWRA’s long effort to get an accurate count on the number of US septic systems took a major step forward when the US Census Bureau agreed to begin testing the “septic vs sewer” question for inclusion in the annual American Community Survey.

The last time there was an official count of onsite systems was in 1990, which was the last year the Census Bureau included the ”long form” as part of the decennial Census. At the time it was estimated that there were 60 million American’s using septic systems, or about 25% of the population.

Nearly 30 years later, that is still the official estimate.

When the Census Bureau eliminated the Long Form, they divided up the long form questions into two surveys – the American Housing Survey (AHS) and the American Community Survey (ACS). The “Septic or Sewer” question was placed in the American Housing Survey. Unfortunately, because of the way information is gathered for the AHS, for the past 30 years that survey has shown septic system usage dropping from 25% to about 15% of the population. Because of the survey methodology of the AHS, its septic vs. sewer information is not considered accurate.

NOWRA believes the “Septic or Sewer” question should be on the American Community Survey (ACS). The survey methodology will not only yield a more accurate estimate on thenumber of septic systems in the country, it will also provide useful data at the state and local government levels.

It’s widely understood that our industry faces many challenges. The first step to addressing those challenges is to understand the scope of the problem. As NOWRA President-Elect Carl Thompson has noted more than once, ‘You can’t fix what you can’t measure.”

For an organization like NOWRA to get a question added to an official Census survey is not an easy task. NOWRA first approached Census officials about this issue, only to learn that there are only two ways to do it: The first way is if Congress passes legislation. The second way is for a federal agency to request that a question be added.

With this knowledge, NOWRA approached EPA to ask them to make this request of the Census. EPA agreed to do so. They believed that the data which NOWRA had gathered was compelling and agreed that such information was not only important, but almost impossible to gather any other way. Thus, EPA began the long process to make the case to Census. Lots of research, conversations with Census officials, and legal reviews have taken place for this effort, but so far EPA has successfully passed each milestone.

What happens next? The testing process is rigorous. For the next five years, Census officials will conduct an extensive review of the question, examining how to word the question to ensure that the data is produces is accurate and without bias. After that, a final approval by Census will still be needed. While anything can happen, the likelihood that it won’t be approved seems low -- Census would not go to the cost and expense to test the question for five years if it didn’t stand a very good chance of being approved.

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