Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Paul P. Mathisen, Advisor

Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

Mingjiang Tao, Committee Member

Faculty Advisor or Committee Member

James C. Ohaughnessy, Committee Member




The purpose of this project is to gain an improved understanding of the transformations that occur in the subsurface downstream of on-site wastewater disposal systems and septic systems. These systems are used widely throughout the United States to treat and discharge wastewater effluent. The approach involved the collection of samples from a septic research center in Cape Cod, MA, and analysis of these samples for nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, pH, alkalinity, suspended solids, metals, and other water quality parameters. Inverse modeling was used to compare samples collected upstream and downstream of subsurface “leaching” fields consisting of sand beds. This approach provided a basis to identify key reactions occurring in the subsurface downstream of the discharge. In addition, a reactive transport software package, based on the PHREEQC and Hydrus-1d models, was used to model the transport in these sand beds and identify possible reactions and changes in contaminant concentrations with depth. To understand the implications of the discharges, an additional field study was completed in an area where septic systems have impacts on surface waters. Samples collected from a stream provided an indication of the loads entering the stream as a result of septic system discharges. Combining the results from the modeling with the results of this field investigation provided an approach to estimate the transport of nutrients and other contaminants entering the surface waters from septic system discharges. The results provide a basis for understanding the impacts of septic systems on surface waters, and develop better approaches for reducing the impacts of these discharges.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Civil & Environmental Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





groundwater modeling, wastewater discharges, contaminant transport