December 2007, Vol. 19, No.12

Small Communities

Year in Review

Jim Kreissl

At its 2006 midyear meeting, the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee approved an outreach plan, the essential elements of which were a new focus on “distributed wastewater management” and an opportunity to publish a monthly column in WE&T.

Why the new focus? Decentralized wastewater treatment has historically referred to technology — applying various treatment systems to individual lots or small systems. However, the committee felt the emphasis should not be on the technology itself but rather on the management of technology. Hence, the term distributed wastewater management was created.

A secondary purpose was to defuse the apparent conflict between the traditional “big pipe” approach to wastewater management and the decentralized proponents that have been characterized as the “septic system in everybody’s backyard” approach.

The intent of these columns has been to acquaint WE&T readers with the various nuances inherent in the distributed management approach.

In the January issue, Todd Danielson wrote a Viewpoint column presenting the rationale for the engineering field to adopt this broader approach to solving water issues for communities. One of his main points was that decentralized wastewater treatment is not the only viable method of wastewater treatment. Rather, we urge municipalities to consider all viable centralized and decentralized technologies. The February column by Dick Otis covered the difficulties and expense of removing nutrients at multiple dispersed (and even individual home) locations. The bottom line is that nutrient removal generally can be performed with a variety of technologies, but when very low limits are set, it may be more cost-effective to use clusters for larger groups of homes due to the management demands of large numbers of complex small facilities.

As a change of pace, Juli Beth Hinds provided a provocative column in March on small-community wastewater and stormwater issues. She identified the need to consider combining these issues in a distributed management program in order to protect watersheds and gain the flexibility needed to do so. In April, Jim Pyne illustrated the special problems faced by smaller utilities in choosing automation and controls and why those choices may be different in these communities than they would be in larger cities.

In May, I made the case for considering alternative collection systems in certain areas in lieu of extending conventional sewers or expanding community growth with onsite systems on required large lots. In June, Barry Tonning discussed the rudiments of watershed management and the role of distributed systems within those watersheds. These basics included the potential hydrologic and water quality advantages of distributed management and the role that planners can play in enhancing watershed quality.

In July, Mike Saunders made some interesting suggestions on the need for more comprehensive methodology for community and developer evaluation of infrastructure choices. Inclusion of all direct and indirect capital, operations, maintenance, and management costs will result in better decisions for those entities, the citizens, and the ecosystem. Mike Hines followed in August, advocating for public–private partnerships to properly manage distributed systems in order to get the maximum benefit from these systems.

In September, Jim Pyne provided guidance for small utilities to be prepared for natural disasters. He noted that each type of technology had specific issues, and they all need to be planned for well ahead of any incident to minimize its impact. In October, Bob Rubin stressed the importance of a sound biosolids and residuals plan for small communities and pointed out the special problems that need to be considered in instituting such plans.

In November, Ed Clerico discussed the applicability and advantages of using membrane bioreactors in small and difficult locations. The high-quality effluent of membrane bioreactors has facilitated water reuse and promoted independence from overloaded centralized facilities.

Often, distributed and decentralized approaches are not considered because the planners, engineers, operators, and other decision-makers do not have knowledge about or experience with these approaches. However, we have found that distributed approaches and decentralized treatment are cost-competitive, especially when taking a triple-bottom-line approach that considers the cost, the community, and the environment.

We hope that this series of columns helps increase readers’ knowledge about distributed management and decentralized systems and allows these systems to be considered during exploration of the best alternatives to suit a specific project situation. We thank WE&T for allowing us to continue it for the next year.

James Kreissl is chair of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee and an environmental consultant in Villa Hills, Ky.