4 Ways That Gophers Can Damage Your Septic Tank System


Gopher Standing on Grass

While septic tank systems can serve to contribute to safeguarding the environment and public health, they are only effective when the system is maintained correctly. Gophers can be pesky little rodents when it comes to keeping your septic tank system in check. But what are the ways that gophers can damage your septic tank? And how to stop them?

Gophers can seriously damage your septic tank system by digging holes in your leach field, causing damage to pipes and septic tanks, building burrows close to one of your installations. The best way to prevent this is to build a fence barrier to prevent gophers from digging.

In short, there are 4 different ways in which gophers can damage your septic tank system:

  1. Gophers can dig holes in your leach field
  2. They might generate direct damage to your pipes
  3. Their burrow can disrupt the flow of wastewater
  4. Gophers may cause foundation damage to your entire system

Before we sink our teeth into identifying how gophers can damage a harmless septic tank system, let us take a quick look at both the wastewater system and burrowing animals in question. 

Is it Possible for Gophers to Damage a Septic Tank?

So, gophers can cause a REAL problem to septic tanks. It’s important to understand just quickly how a septic tank actually works so you get a good sense of the damage that gophers can cause and its effect on your home.

Gophers go underground quite often and spend the majority of their time there, as well.

Here’s how septic tanks work:

In short, the wastewater coming from the house is directed towards the septic tank. Within the septic tank, wastewater is broken down into different layers over time, separating the solid and the liquid materials from each other. This generally results in the formation of three distinct layers.

The top layer being greasy and made up of oils, will float on top of the tank. This layer is generally referred to as scum. In the middle remains the actual wastewater, which is being drained through the pipes serving as the drain field.

The heavier waste gradually sinks to the bottom, making the third and last layer, also referred to as sludge. 

In time, bacteria inside the tank serve to further break down sludge, eventually allowing for further drainage of the remaining liquids. In the end, the bottom layer of sludge needs to be cleaned every three to five years.

As both the septic tank and the pipes are installed under the surface, they can get exposed to burrowing rodents like our little, biting gophers. Therefore, gophers can become quite a nuisance to your septic system when their presence is spotted.

If gophers end up damaging your septic, the three layers of your septic (oils, waste, and sludge) can leak into your lawn and cause CONSIDERABLY problems. A considerable stinky mess, to say the least.

But what are gophers, and why do they even want to mess around with a septic tank system? Well, let’s take a deeper look.

Gophers Burrow in Your Backyard

Gopher Perched Up in Hole

Gophers often referred to as pocket gophers, are small rodents that wander around underground, digging up the earth for shelter and food. Burrowing rodents as they are, gophers mainly live buried in the consolation of the darkness and dirt beneath our feet.

Gophers generally eat everything that presents itself to their tunnel vision, although this primarily includes worms and insects that are ready for the taking.

As pocket gophers usually prefer their surroundings to be as dark as ink, they rarely show their cute snout above the ground. Shy as they can be, gophers prefer the comfort below ground and therefore are seldom spotted with the naked eye.

When they do come to meet the wonders of the world above, they usually do so to quickly relocate themselves to another tunnel, to escape particular danger, or to add a few plants and seeds to their monotonous diet. That said, we usually do not spot them until the damage is done.

By the time you noticed your backyard had been bombarded, not by an aerial assault but by a stealthy team of rodents, the perpetrators will have pulled down the blinds and retreated back inside.

How Gophers Cause Septic Tank Damage

The presence of a gopher is easily noticeable by the havoc they leave behind. When pocket gophers are running a covert operation underneath your backyard, they can seemingly transform the flatness of your lawn into a recently exploded minefield, leaving numerous heaps of dirt in their wake. 

Although it might be evident that they can present a nuisance to a garden patch or a recently mowed lawn, they can actually cause severe damage and disrupt a septic tank system as well.

Getting to the good stuff, here’s how gophers can damage your septic.

Digging Holes in Your Leach Field

When gophers are running to and fro between the leach field, chasing a worm or two, they can make various adjustments to the stability of your private sewage system. 

As pocket gophers can dig holes and tunnels of a considerable size, it will only be a matter of time before they casually bump into your system. At that point, besides potentially physically damaging the pipes themselves, they might already cause a disruption of the functionality of the pipes. 

Imagine a tunnel being dug under or above a pipe; it can cause severe strain on the pipe. This, in turn, might result in a clogging or general change inflow of wastewater. Even changing the balance underneath the tank itself will result in damage and a change in the flow of wastewater. 

Causing Direct Damage to Pipes

In order for the entire sewage system to run smoothly, certain liquids need to be drained. This, as opposed to waste becoming clogged inside the pipes, flowing back to the tank, or leaking out entire. 

As gophers are even known to occupying rocky areas, digging their way through whatever meets their path, it should not be surprising they can cause damage to a rusty pipe. In general, pocket gophers are well-equipped to dig through or around obstacles with their forceful paws and claws. 

The digging of gophers can result in breaking or blocking the pipes in your leach field, which will result in a disruption of the entire system. On top of that, the liquids which are supposed to flow freely into the soil might start to come back to the surface instead.

When a pipe leaks wastewater, your garden can quickly transform itself into a dirty and smelly swamp. Then it is just a wait for the swamp monster, and the horror will be complete.

Indeed, the story becomes rather bleak from here on out. Besides your garden being a total mess – and the strange looks from your neighbors – you can also forget the entire private sewage system, as the whole operation will come to a standstill. Lastly, if the tank or pipes are in need of reparation, it will be a costly business indeed. Of course, all of this is obviously to be avoided like a pest. 

Burrowing Disrupts The Flow of Wastewater

Another way gophers can disrupt your system is in the unfortunate event that they choose to build their burrow in close proximity to your tank or pipes.

As we have mentioned before, any change can result in the disruption of the operation in question. As burrows are particularly large and wide, they may present a sinkhole of sorts. Of course, this can seriously shift the balance of your system, resulting in countless disruptions in the flow of wastewater in the drain field.

Again, swaps are to be avoided, like a hangover on Mondays.

Foundation Damage to Your Entire Septic System

Overall, before knowing what went wrong, gophers can pose a serious strain to the maintenance of your entire system. Whether they choose to dig holes, damaged pipes or disrupt wastewater flows, the damage done can leave an entire septic tank system from functioning properly. 

In the end, we are basically talking about a shift in soil compression, the changing pressures between layers of dirt underground.

Unfortunately, anything that alters the structure of a well-placed septic tank system can result causing serious damage to the system, especially in the long run. As a gopher-induced loss of stability is to be avoided going forward, let us dive into the different ways in which we can try to protect ourselves.

How To Prevent Gophers From Damaging Your Septic and Leach Field

Two Gophers on Dirt

By and large, it should be clear that there is no special reason as to why gophers might damage your wastewater disposal system. As they live their lives underground, gophers are both figuratively and literally blind to some extent. Naturally, they arguably have little motivation and drive in life outside the context of survival. 

Moreover, when looking at their passion for digging, it goes without saying that pocket gophers are not a big fan of meeting sizeable obstacles en route. A septic tank and the accompanying pipes are basically disrupting their way of life. 

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig! Indeed, there is no way to make a septic tank not be a septic tank – we, nor they, can go around that hard fact.

Of course, they do have 57,308,738 square miles of land on earth to go through. However, we can hardly put the blame on gophers for occasionally bumping into a pipe or tank – not to mention the other mysteries some bury away deeply in the lower levels beneath the soil.

We do not recommend playing king of the hill with a legion of gophers. Instead, have a closer look at the natural and harmless ways in which you can prevent gophers from damaging your septic tank system going forward.

You can prevent gophers from getting near your septic and leach field in 5 easy steps:

  1. Set up a fence around the septic tank system
  2. Plant weeds closely around the fence
  3. Make use of natural gopher repellents
  4. Avoid planting anything on top of your septic tank system
  5. Close their holes behind them

Set Up a Fence Around Your Leach Field or Backyard

It is always advised to make use of a fence to fend off animals such as gophers. If you are not entirely sure which material to use, it is always best to go with galvanized metal wire. It is flexible – easy to set up and break down – yet firm enough to not let any rodents get through. 

It is furthermore recommended to galvanize your fence if you don’t obtain one galvanized already.

The process of applying a protective layer of zinc coating to the iron wire makes for a stronger fence. It is usually done to prevent disintegration and to prevent the forming of brown colors of rust on the fence. For more information, the BSTOOL Chicken Wire Net might suit your needs perfectly.

When it comes to setting up a fence in relation to your septic tank system, you will want to make sure that both your tank and pipes are protected. 

In order for the fence to be effective against burrowing rodents, the fence needs to be placed 12-18 inches into the ground and pointed OUTWARDS at a 90-degree angle toward where the gophers would try to be digging towards. For this practice, it is advised to dig a trench around your leach field and septic tank.

Plant Weeds Closely Around The Fence

As to decorate your fence and add an extra measure of defense, you can always try to deter animals from becoming attracted to your garden by planting some weeds around the fence. 

You might ask yourself, why not plant the weeds, which serve to repel, on top of the septic system? Well, for the simple reason that whatever is planted on top of your system might cause your entire structure to disrupt.

Weeds can have long-growing roots. The worst-case scenario would be for the roots to get tangled up in your system. It is therefore advised to plant weeds at least some 40 feet away. As such, it is best to plant the weeds around the fence itself to make your entire garden look less attractive, to begin with.

Perhaps you can also try to make use of sonic spikes to accompany the fence. For more information, you can have a peek at the Gopher Sonic Spike.

Make Use of Natural Gopher Repellents

Besides covering your fence with weeds, or in case you don’t have a fence at all, you might want to go with planting some natural repellents – which can serve as a natural fence. 

Plants that are known to potentially repel gophers include lavender, rosemary, marigolds, and catmint. 

Avoid Planting Anything on Top of Your Septic Tank System

Again, one should avoid planting anything on top of the tank and pipes for the simple reason that whatever becomes produces on top might not come out as healthy as expected. Indeed, some traces of waste may be present in fruits and vegetables are grown close to septic systems, especially close to the leach field, where liquids are re-introduced into the soil. 

Besides, gophers might even be attracted to the plants and seeds you would be providing them, so best to avoid planting anything near your system.

Close Their Holes Behind Them

It is always good to close the gopher’s little hole to drive the argument home. Best to prevent them from inviting themselves again by switching holes.

To make things easier when closing a pocket gopher’s hole behind them, you can always choose to go with a natural repellent. For more information, you can have a quick look at the following Victor M7001-1 Mole & Gopher Repellent. It penetrates through mole and gopher tunnels faster than, for instance, trying to simply flush a tunnel.

Finally, in case of gophers are currently posing a threat to your septic tank, do not hesitate to contact your local animal control. You can also choose to contact our nationwide network of pest and wildlife control professionals to find a contractor near you within a matter of seconds.

Thank you for reading!

References

Andelt, W. F., & Case, R. M. (2003). Managing pocket gophers (Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University. Libraries).

Bounds, T. R. (1997). Design and performance of septic tanks. In Site Characterization and Design of On-Site Septic Systems. ASTM International.

Case, R. M., & Jasch, B. A. (1994). Pocket gophers. The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage.

Gunn, D., Hirnyck, R., Shewmaker, G., Takatori, S., & Ellis, L. (2011). Meadow voles and pocket gophers: management in lawns, gardens, and Cropland. Oregon State University Extension Service.

Hansen, R. M., & Morris, M. J. (1968). Movement of rocks by northern pocket gophers. Journal of Mammalogy, 49(3).

Huntly, N., & Inouye, R. (1988). Pocket gophers in ecosystems: patterns and mechanisms. BioScience, 38(11).

Koehler, Ann E., Rex E. Marsh, and Terrell P. Salmon. “Frightening methods and devices/stimuli to prevent mammal damage–a review.” (1990).

Kolenosky, A. J. (1995). Summer above-ground movements of northern pocket gophers, Thomomys talpoides, in an alfalfa field. Canadian Field-Naturalist.

Olson, K., Gustafson, D., Liukkonen, B., & Cook, V. (1997). Septic System: Owner’s Guide.

Reichman, O. J., & Seabloom, E. W. (2002). The role of pocket gophers as subterranean ecosystem engineers. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Salmon, T. P., Schmidt, R. H., & Marsh, R. E. (1990). An evaluation of fencing to exclude pocket gophers from experimental plots. In Proceedings of the Vertebrate Pest Conference (Vol. 14, No. 14).

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