Rural, low-income municipalities face tough choices when mandated to implement wastewater planning for populations that have been historically served by on-lot disposal systems. Is decentralized wastewater management a potential option? Can there be a blending of centralized and decentralized approaches that protects public health and the environment? Finally, how can a project of this type be funded in order to minimize the financial impact on local residences and businesses?
Some answers can be found in what’s happening in South Creek Township in Bradford County, Pa.
South Creek Township is located on the northern border of Pennsylvania, near Elmira, N.Y. The township is rural in character, with a population of 1261. Two small, unincorporated villages, Gillett and Fassett, sit about 5 km (3 mi) apart and comprise the township’s centers of population. South Creek flows in and near the two villages, which are within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Soils in the area are often unsuitable for on-lot disposal systems, and wetlands are common.
In 2000, South Creek began “to develop and implement comprehensive official plans which provide for the resolution of existing sewage disposal problems, provide for the future sewage disposal needs of new land development, and provide for the future sewage disposal needs of the municipality,” as mandated by the Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act of 1966 (Act 537).
That summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) completed a survey of on-lot disposal systems in Gillett and Fassett. The survey is part of the requirements of Act 537 to evaluate what, if any, structural or nonstructural wastewater management alternatives would have to be implemented by the township. The survey assisted in determining “the need for a sewage management program to assure the future operation and maintenance of existing and proposed sewage facilities,” according to Act 537.
The survey identified high levels of failing on-lot disposal systems in Fassett, with lower levels in Gillett. Additionally, contamination of wells by total and fecal coliform was documented in both villages.
For several years, the township struggled to produce a final Act 537 plan. In 2005, DEP and South Creek entered into a consent order and agreement to finalize completion of the plan. The township hired a new consulting engineering firm, Herbert, Rowland, and Grubic Inc. (State College, Pa.), to complete the plan that year.
Initially, the plan called for constructing a single 284,000-L/d (75,000-gal/d) package treatment plant to serve both villages. But after the official plan was completed, several factors caused the estimated cost to rise to more than $8 million. One factor was rapidly escalating construction costs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
With costs rising dramatically, DEP agreed to consider additional options for meeting the wastewater treatment needs in Gillett and Fassett. The plan was revised and approved in 2008. The final project had an estimated project cost of $4.2 million and included the following treatment options:
One 95,000-L/d (25,000-gal/d) extended aeration package treatment plant to serve 88 equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) in Fassett, with a collection system composed of grinder pumps and low-pressure sewers.
Three 1500- to 7600-L/d (400- to 2000-gal/d) small-flow treatment systems (recirculating sand filters with disinfection and surface discharge) serving 10 EDUs in Gillett.
Implementation of a sewage management program (SMP) for 125 EDUs, primarily in Gillett, with several in Fassett. The SMP includes the pumping and inspection of all on-lot disposal systems on a 3-year cycle, with repairs as necessary.
Even after cutting the project cost almost in half, obtaining an acceptable financing package remained the key to moving the project forward. An income survey of the township in 2007 found a median household income in the project area of only $29,045. The township’s consultants sought all possible sources of financing upon completion of the income survey.
Because 53.6% of the residents had low and moderate incomes, according to the income survey, the project qualified for the Community Development Block Grant program.
The project planners also sought Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) assistance. Decentralized wastewater management projects may be eligible for conventional sources of financing, including CWSRFs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publication Activity Update: Funding Decentralized Wastewater Systems Using the Clean Water State Revolving Fund states that “those interested in implementing or upgrading a decentralized treatment system should seek out their CWSRF program, determine whether their state CWSRF has the legal authority to make loans for decentralized projects, and participate in the annual process that determines which projects are funded.”
In Pennsylvania, PENNVEST, the state CWSRF, has the ability to finance decentralized wastewater management projects if the projects meet all program requirements. The township applied.
The township also applied for a new funding program, H2O PA, which was initiated in Pennsylvania in 2009. The program provides grants for water and wastewater projects.
Additional funding requests had been submitted to state and federal legislators.
A final financing package was developed, as shown in the table (below). All of the awards were received as grants.
The combination of grant funds from five sources will mean that there will likely be no debt service for the project. Additionally, Community Development Block Grant funding will be available to assist homeowners with tapping fees and private costs for connecting to the system.
The project is currently under construction and will be completed by fall. The first round of pumping and inspection of on-lot disposal systems under the SMP has been completed and, at press time, the second round was underway.
Dueling Management Models
Decentralized wastewater management in South Creek follows a mixture of EPA management models 3 and 5, as described in Voluntary National Guidelines for Management of Onsite and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Treatment Systems. Model 3, the Operating Permit Model, applies to on-lot disposal systems in the SMP. According to EPA, Model 3 includes “limited-term operating permits issued to the property owner [that] are renewable for another term if the owner demonstrates that the system is in compliance with the terms and conditions of the permit.” In South Creek Township, all property owners in the planning area are required to pump and inspect their on-lot disposal systems every 3 years. Repairs, other than the replacement of a failing system with a small-flow treatment system, are the responsibility of the property owner.
The township has contracted with a single pumper–hauler for the pumping of all systems and also has contracted with the Bradford County Sanitation Committee, the county’s on-lot disposal management entity, to conduct inspections simultaneously with the pumping.
Model 5, the Responsible Management Entity Ownership Model, applies to the small-flow treatment systems. The township owns and manages the systems. Operations and maintenance will be performed by the staff responsible for the package treatment plant.
In addition to establishing the treatment options, the plan also established two rate districts — one higher, one lower. The higher rate will be established for customers receiving treatment at the package plant and small-flow systems, once the project is completed. The rate will be an estimated $45 to $50 per month.
The lower rate applies to properties in the SMP and has been initially established at $30 per month. The fee will cover the costs of the SMP, including pumping and inspection, and allow for a reserve to be established to construct additional small-flow treatment systems in the event that failing on-lot systems are identified and cannot be repaired.
A Decade of Effort
It has taken 10 years for South Creek Township to travel from the beginning of mandated planning to having active decentralized wastewater management in place and the end of centralized treatment construction in sight.
South Creek proves that a low-income rural municipality can manage its wastewater treatment with a blend of centralized and decentralized approaches. Reaching that goal requires innovative thinking to find a financially viable solution. It’s also likely that such a solution will require significant financial assistance in the form of grants and the knowledge of how to identify, seek, and obtain such financing.
Donald P. Schwartz
is a project manager at Herbert, Rowland, and Grubic Inc. (State College, Pa.).
©2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.