March 2008, Vol. 20, No.3

Small Communities

Educating the Public

Elizabeth M. Dietzmann

For those of you who don’t know me, among my other environmental law work, I assist developers, small communities, and utilities on the selection, funding, and construction of distributed or decentralized wastewater systems.

I read the latest articles and strategy documents on education of the public and implementation and management of community systems. Unfortunately, flow charts, critical paths, and terms such as stakeholder buy-in and community consensus aren’t much help when I am standing in front of a group of citizens or meeting with a developer to explain why a clustered system is the best choice. The reality is that no two projects ever will be the same. There is no set process that you can follow when implementing a project. For each situation, you have to find a catalyst and identify the obstacles for that particular project. Sometimes, obstacles become catalysts, and catalysts can lead to other obstacles. Everything is fluid and subject to change.

I was recently involved in a project that illustrates this concept to a tee. While the project was ultimately successful, we encountered numerous obstacles and some unusual catalysts.

The project involved several existing subdivisions with failing septic systems that were discharging partially treated wastewater into ditches. Land adjacent to the subdivisions was slated for new residential development. The existing homes were in the $300,000 to $600,000 range, and many homeowners had spent thousands of dollars attempting to fix traditional septic systems that simply would not function in heavy clay soils. The local health department and the local prosecuting attorney were unwilling to sanction the homeowners for all the obvious political and budgetary reasons. Many of the owners, including a local judge, were unable to sell their homes due to these problems, so property values were being severely affected.

A local water district provided water service to the entire area, but it was reluctant to take action on any wastewater issues. Even though citizens approached the water board several times asking for help, the board was not interested in building an extensive system of collection lines, negotiating with the nearby town for wastewater treatment, or building a treatment plant. The water board would not even entertain the idea of a preliminary feasibility study, because it believed the several miles between the subdivisions and the city would make the project cost-prohibitive.

Furthermore, the city and the water board had a long history of disputes over service areas, and per city ordinance, the only way to get wastewater service from the city would be for homeowners to vote to be annexed into the city. The city announced that in addition to annexation, the homeowners would have to pay a steep tap fee for water and sewer service, which none of the residents wanted to do.

Luckily, the manager of the water district and the district engineer were both open to new ideas — new to this Midwestern state that is. I contacted manufacturers of clustered systems in order to get information about systems and how they work, including color brochures and case studies from other small communities that were hugely helpful in explaining this concept to all the parties. The district manager was committed to using septic tank effluent pumping (STEP) collection and several clustered recirculating sand filters in order to both replace the existing septic systems and serve the new subdivisions. The initial obstacle was the water board.

At the same time, one of the residents on the local electric co-op board raised the issue in the hopes of getting the co-op involved. The electric co-op also had long-standing service area disputes with the city and was determined not to lose any more customers to annexation. The water district manager and the co-op manager were old friends and literally picked up the phone to call one another at the same time. This was starting to look like a catalyst. The co-op agreed to intercede with the water district board and make the case that if it did nothing, they would both risk losing customers to the city. If they worked together, they could both gain customers from new developments, and the co-op would sell some additional electricity to operate the wastewater collection and treatment system. The co-op fronted some seed money to pay the district engineer to prepare a feasibility study for decentralized systems and worked to convince the water board that it could easily manage the decentralized systems as part of its water system management program. Free money is always a good catalyst!

At the same time, the district manager encouraged a few key residents with septic problems to come to each and every board meeting. These included some former water board members, a local judge, the city attorney (he had some of the worst problems; in fact, his wastewater was leaking onto the judge’s property), and prospective developers. Now these elected board members were faced with monthly complaints from citizens who had been educated behind the scenes by the district manager about using clustered systems as a possible solution to their problems. In fact, two former board members even threatened to run again if the current board did not take some action. This public input was a powerful catalyst, and the water board agreed to “look into the matter.”

The final catalyst was a visit from the state regulators. They were invited to attend a board meeting and update the water board on wellhead protection issues and potential problems with the local karst topography and well contamination from the nonfunctioning systems. The water district had several wells, all of which were in close proximity to the subdivisions in question. That visit carried a lot of clout! The preliminary engineer’s report was completed and referenced this issue as well. It also showed that it would be surprisingly cost-effective to construct several STEP systems followed by recirculating sand filters and that the original developers in the existing subdivisions would even donate unbuildable lots for the location of the treatment and dispersal systems. It seemed like a green light. The water board was convinced.

Then the city got wind of the project and created another obstacle. Or was it a catalyst? Alarmed at the prospect of the water district and the co-op working together to thwart annexation, the city started disseminating inaccurate information about clustered systems and monthly user fees. While this alarmed many citizens who had been staunch supporters and confused those who were relatively uninformed, it did serve one unexpected function. It positively galvanized the water board.

The water board and the electric co-op leaped into action and put together a panel consisting of the co-op manager, water district manager, state regulators, manufacturers’ representatives, the district engineer, our public finance consultant, and me. We held numerous public meetings and distributed written information. The water district even chartered a van to take citizens on tours of existing systems. The health department offered to inspect existing systems and identify the malfunctions. Developers worked hard as well to promote the advantages of growth that new housing would bring. The electric co-op offered to install the new meters required for the STEP tanks at no charge and to assist the water district with emergency call-outs that inevitably would occur. Eventually, the citizens were educated and persuaded that clustered systems would solve their problems. Ultimately, both the water board and the citizens ended up embracing the technology so enthusiastically that the water board went on to reach out to other parts of the community and build several more clustered systems in other existing subdivisions and for new developments.

Clearly, each project will have different facts that lead to different catalysts and obstacles. The main lesson I have learned is to treat each project as a unique situation. Analyze the players, look at the economic, political, and regulatory constraints, and figure out where to exert influence and how best to educate. Admittedly, this is an organic process not easily codified in a handbook or a flow chart, but it is the only way I know of to implement distributed projects effectively.

Elizabeth M. Dietzmann is an attorney with AquaLaw (Richmond, Va.) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee.

Elizabeth M. Dietzmann is an attorney with AquaLaw (Richmond, Va.) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee.