January 2010, Vol. 22, No.1

Small Communities

Decentralized Wastewater Treatment: Practice, Policy, and Prospect

Craig Lindell

As I write, the U.S. Senate has dropped the category of “environmentally innovative” projects from its state revolving fund appropriations; a Cape Cod community is considering whether to use clustered decentralized systems to, in part, fulfill its total maximum daily load requirements for total nitrogen; and the Water Environment Research Foundation (Alexandria, Va.) is reviewing a Piperton, Tenn., decision to leverage sewer ordinances into a distributed municipal infrastructure that was built to meet demand on a just-in-time basis and that paid for itself.

This conflict of approach and avoidance characterizes the current state of decentralized wastewater treatment. Decision-makers are ambivalent. Decentralized wastewater treatment is demonstrating its ability to achieve rigorous compliance standards and open creative new ways to pay for infrastructure. However, issues of application, perception, scale, management, and performance remain unresolved.

An unnecessarily long and laborious sorting out is occurring. In the interim, citizens, communities, and the natural systems on which they depend are experiencing rising ecological, social, and financial costs that are not sustainable.

An Issue of Governance

Why so much potential is so misunderstood and how so much potential will ultimately manifest itself is, of course, subject to interpretation. Many in the government, university, and nonprofit sectors, including many at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consider the cause to be a lack of education about what decentralized treatment can accomplish. I consider it an issue of governance.

EPA, in its 1997 report to the U.S. Congress and in subsequent documents, endorsed decentralized wastewater treatment as a permanent long-term solution to be evaluated on the same basis as traditional systems. However, it justified its position under the framework of public health, instead of within the context of the sewer ordinances.

In doing so, EPA consigned decentralized wastewater treatment to a collection of innovative and alternative technologies whose application and permitting are subject to the vagaries and variables of local health codes and departments. Tragically, the reputations of many technologies and the decentralized approach itself have been discredited for want of any semblance of a management process.

Whether EPA realized it or not, it was apparent by 1997 that to address nonpoint source pollution and realize the objectives of integrated water resource management and the watershed agenda, it would be necessary to provide a distributed approach to infrastructure. Climate change and the efforts to reduce carbon, nutrient, and water footprints further this realization. By 2001, it had become glaringly apparent to the EPA Office of Water.

Consider the perspectives of Tracy Meehan, EPA assistant administrator for water from 2001 to 2003:

  • Point source controls alone are not capable of achieving or maintaining ambient environmental standards.
  • The assimilative capacity of our environment is limited, and the technological and economic limitations of our existing regulatory framework are at hand.
  • Failure to fully incorporate the watershed approach into program implementation will result in failure to achieve our environmental objectives in many of our nation’s waters.

Despite candid leadership and arguments for systemic change, none has been forthcoming.

The decision to allow decentralized wastewater treatment to be subject to environmental health codes has diminished and obscured its potential. Not only did this classification expose decentralized wastewater treatment to the uncertainties of the codes, it stripped a distributed architecture of the tools available in traditional sewer ordinances to aggregate participation, raise funds and assess fees, and establish trusted and responsible management.

Correspondingly, EPA has neglected to clarify the value of a distributed architecture, encourage its application through the sewer ordinances, and stimulate its application through the use of state revolving funds. Moreover, in an irony bordering on tragedy, EPA, which was created to achieve environmental results that neither private markets nor individual states could achieve, has abrogated its responsibility for the watershed agenda and transferred it to the states.

And finally, instead of engaging the complexity that I am trying to suggest briefly in this commentary, EPA has largely determined that the cause of our common failure to realize the watershed agenda is one of education. But education and, for that matter, governance, may be erroneous priorities affecting nothing.

A Change in Perspective

We have learned that a distributed approach to infrastructure is possible. We also have learned that the potential of the distributed approach is locked in programmatic structures that inhibit its application and blind us to its inherent capacity for environmental results, as well as opportunities to create jobs and grow capital.

For example, one utility in what was one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation in 2007 is designing a centralized treatment plant that, in the current economic climate, it is not expecting to build. Instead, to serve scattered commercial demand for development, the county’s leaders have asked, “What can you teach me about decentralized wastewater treatment?”

Those leaders were seeking distributed systems. More than that, though, they were pursuing a model that places the supply of services in response to demand — instead of trying to predict how things will change in the future.

Despite issues of definition and governance, decentralized wastewater treatment has opened critical new perspectives in how to provide infrastructure.

The potential in decentralized wastewater treatment is not in its technologies as much as it is in the perspectives that its technologies have enabled. Among the most important are that there can be a more efficient and cost-effective alignment between the demand for infrastructure and its supply. Decentralized treatment can supply highly effective and reliable treatment while diminishing both the capital costs and the high-energy life-cycle costs of collection.

Open almost any comprehensive wastewater management plan and you will find a needs assessment. It may include hydraulically or organically overloaded central systems, demand for access by other municipal partners, aging septic systems, total maximum daily load compliance issues, and a host of other local concerns. It is always an imperfect balance of supply and demand.

The dilemma is that resolving one issue under the centralized approach must wait for all of the issues to be resolved. Often pent up behind this waiting game is considerable opportunity for economic development, as well as possibilities to raise property values and create jobs.

Ask city and county managers what they worry about the most, and they will respond with

  • water quality and supply,
  • community preservation and quality of life, and
  • economic development and revenue.

This is surprisingly similar to the “triple bottom line” of sustainability — ecological integrity, social equity, and economic reality. Couple this with the principles of reducing the carbon, nutrient, and water footprint, and you have the elements of a planning process that will adapt infrastructure to community instead of the other way around.

This approach to planning is network- or context-centric instead of platform-centric. Distributed wastewater management enables the situation at hand to define the technologies, processes, skills, and organizational structures that will deliver the best available solution, instead of the best available technology.

Decentralized wastewater treatment will prove to be a better compass than a construct. The convergence of context-sensitive planning and design and the ability to significantly reduce the costs of collection and to more effectively align demand and supply provides opportunities for infrastructure far beyond those offered by point source controls and our existing regulatory framework.

Not putting these tools to work is leaving water policy mired in the 20th century while energy, transportation, and other major infrastructure classes are being restructured and surging into the 21st.


Craig Lindell is chief executive officer of AquaPoint Inc. (New Bedford, Mass.).

© 2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.