August 2007, Vol. 19, No.8

Small Communities

Public and Private: Never the Two Shall Meet?

Michael Hines

In the January issue of WE&T, Todd Danielson explored the concept of “distributed wastewater management.” This concept suggests that for a given area, a mix of “big pipe,” clustered decentralized systems, and individual onsite systems could be the most cost-effective and sensible choice to provide wastewater service. Unfortunately, the public and private sectors that provide these services don’t collaborate very often.

County, municipal, and wastewater utility district officials tend to distrust collection and treatment systems using equipment and technologies that are significantly different from those in large systems. Most engineers have little or no experience with small systems. The concept of designing, owning, and operating systems that include septic tanks can be daunting to utilities and design consultants alike.

Until recently, purveyors of clustered decentralized or individual onsite systems had to rely on individual homeowners or homeowner associations to operate and maintain them. Most of these systems suffered from lack of adequate management. The resulting high level of failures contributed to a widespread attitude that these systems were incapable of meeting the wastewater needs of growing areas.

Significant strides have been made since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demonstrated the viability of properly managed decentralized systems in its 1997 Response To Congress on the Use of Onsite and Decentralized Wastewater Management Systems. Chief among these has been the emerging willingness of utilities to own and operate decentralized systems. The partnering of public and private utilities offers the greatest hope for achieving holistic water management. To be successful, most of these utilities must meet the Model Program 5 description contained in EPA’s Guidelines for Management of Onsite/Decentralized Wastewater Systems, which essentially is the same as that required to manage conventional wastewater systems.

Cities usually control development planning for some distance beyond their boundaries. Therefore, properly implemented planning and zoning can positively influence decisions about the mixture of wastewater management options in an entire region. Subdivision development regulations can encourage the use of cluster systems in place of individual septic systems above certain lot densities. Zoning regulations can identify environmentally sensitive areas, such as those along seacoasts, lakefronts, or other waterbodies. Development in these sensitive areas can be limited to community sewers or clustered decentralized systems.

Communities that do not wish to develop expertise in managing and operating decentralized systems can turn to many private utility companies. Through contracts, franchises, and other partnering agreements, public entities can utilize all kinds of alternative wastewater collection, treatment, and effluent dispersal methods. The private utility would provide the design, construction, and operation skills for these small systems that the public entity does not possess.

Unfortunately, the private decentralized system and governmentally owned utility sectors have not developed the level of mutual trust that would foster cooperation. Some municipalities believe private utility-owned decentralized systems will take their future customers. If the only way municipalities could serve future customers was extending conventional sewers, this might be a valid concern. But in reality, municipalities have the option to buy decentralized systems at a price considerably less than the cost to run conventional sewers. They also could “franchise” the decentralized system and share the income.

Likewise, many advocates of the decentralized wastewater management concept have become so calloused by their struggles with “big pipe” systems that they have become equally unwilling to recognize that both types of systems have a place in the mix. At the same time, they see the American Society of Civil Engineers (Reston, Va.) try to convince the U.S. Congress that large, governmentally owned and financed sewer systems are the only way to provide for the nation’s wastewater management needs.

Still, there are expanding efforts to merge these competing public and private efforts into cooperative partnerships. One example is the Wilson County (Tenn.) Water and Wastewater Authority. The authority provides water and wastewater services to all areas of the county outside the boundaries of the municipalities. As it has little experience in onsite or clustered systems, the authority contracted with a private company to manage and direct all aspects of providing sewerage service. Developer-funded systems are being installed and turned over to the authority to own and operate. These systems range in size from a few lots to multiple subdivisions on a multimillion-gallon-per-day system designed to send quality reused effluent back to the subdivision lots for homeowner use.

The Town of Blacksburg, Va., has implemented a policy that calls for the town to build regional recirculating sand filter drip effluent dispersal systems to serve a 3500-lot drainage basin on the edge of town. Developers will build subdivisions using a septic tank effluent pump–septic tank effluent gravity collection system, and the effluent will be sent to regional treatment centers. The town will own and operate the systems with the support of private consultants and equipment providers.

The rapidly developing Rutherford County (Tenn.) Consolidated Utility District recognized that proliferation of septic tank–drain field systems in new subdivisions was posing a serious threat due to the extremely shallow soils and fractured limestone throughout the county. Since 1998, the district has built approximately 30 large recirculating sand filter drip systems. A number of private companies provide guidance on design, construction, and operation.

Many more such public–private partnerships must be developed before distributed wastewater management can become a viable option. It will take open minds, open communication among all stakeholders, and agreement that the long-term interests of future customers must be considered.

Michael Hines is founding principal of Southeast Environmental Engineering LLC (Concord, Tenn.)

Michael Hines is founding principal of Southeast Environmental Engineering LLC (Concord, Tenn.)