Wastewater infrastructure is designed to provide safe, efficient conveyance and treatment of sewage to protect human health and the environment. However, climate change increasingly threatens the effectiveness of this infrastructure, particularly in coastal communities.

Many of these communities rely on decentralized wastewater treatment technologies, such as septic systems. High-tide flooding, extreme precipitation events, and sea level rise can impair these onsite systems. Contaminants from improperly treated wastewater can cause human illness and ecosystem damage, and may ultimately diminish quality of life in affected coastal municipalities.


Research was undertaken to evaluate existing onsite wastewater technologies under multiple climate conditions in the coastal Carolinas. The intent is to help coastal communities to cost-effectively and legally implement climate adaptation plans for wastewater infrastructure. Outcomes of this research include:

An overview of the research results are presented in a digital story.

Results to Date


Harrison, J., Vorhees, L., Humphrey, C., O’Driscoll, M., Iverson, G., Bowden, J., Edwards, E., Burnett, I., and K. Hill. 2022. Climate Change and Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems in the Coastal Carolinas. North Carolina Sea Grant UNC-SG-22-08.

Vorhees, L., Harrison, J., O’Driscoll, M., Humphrey, C., and J. Bowden. 2022. Climate change and onsite wastewater treatment systems in the coastal Carolinas: Perspectives from wastewater managers. Journal of Weather, Climate and Society. https://doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-21-0192.1.

Edwards, E. and I. Burnett. 2022. Coastal Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems: Prioritizing Investment through Abatement Cost Analysis.

Vorhees, L. and J. Harrison. 2021. Climate Change and Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems in the Coastal Carolinas: Perspectives from Wastewater Managers. North Carolina Sea Grant UNC-SG-21-06.


News Coverage

Research Team and Funding

North Carolina Sea Grant is leading this research on climate change and onsite wastewater systems, in collaboration with university and community partners and with funding from the NOAA Climate Program Office.

The research team includes:

Community partners include:


Lead image: A view of the Town of Nags Head in the Outer Banks. Photo by Charlie Cowins/flickr/CC BY 2.0