November 2010, Vol. 22, No.11

Small Communities

Collaborating for job formation, economic development, and the watershed agenda

Craig Lindell

  

This is an alternate version of the column that was printed in the November issue. Scroll down to see the text that appeared in the magazine.


Collaboration is acknowledged to be the essential element in actualizing the watershed agenda. Because watersheds are complex and dynamically varying natural systems they need shared understanding among the institutions responsible for their well being. Understanding watersheds and practicing sustainable hydrology to sustain them is an ethical as well as a technical consideration.

Decentralized or distributed wastewater management provides technologies and perspectives that enhance the potential for collaboration because they enhance the possibilities for fulfilling objectives. In so doing the distributed approach to sewer can stimulate immediate opportunities for capital and job formation.

However, collaboration is participative. If a critical interest group or authority chooses not to participate collaboration will become confrontation. The ecological, economic, and social losses that accompany confrontation are not trivial. The inability to collaborate to achieve water quality standards has led to the Conservation Law Foundation (Boston) to a recent decision to file lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and agencies on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

The message from the Cape is clear. If we cannot find the ability to collaborate and constructively innovate our fate is to litigate.

Decentralized or distributed wastewater management — like distributed information and distributed energy generation systems — places processing power where it is needed in a centrally managed network. It is performance based, modular, scaleable, affordable, and readily deployable. After 25 years of research and practice, in 1996 EPA endorsed decentralized wastewater treatment as a permanent long term solution to be evaluated on the same basis as traditional sewer. (See 1996 Clean Water Needs Survey: Report to Congress, EPA 832-R-97-003.)

Decentralized wastewater treatment is a mature solution with a portfolio of collection, treatment, and dispersal technology and service options. This approach is well prepared to address the watershed agenda, integrated water resource management, and coastal zone total maximum daily load (TMDL) compliance, as well as preparations for climate change and reductions in water, carbon, and nutrient footprints.

Nevertheless, it lingers somewhat discredited and certainly misunderstood on the edges of the dominant onsite and central sewer traditions. The consequences of this isolation deprive local economies and ecologies of a hybrid that can leverage the advantages present in each of the dominant traditions.

 

A case in point

EPA’s 1986 Needs Survey Report to Congress (EPA-430-9-87-001)acknowledged that 41 state water quality boards had listed septic systems as the first or second largest contributor to ground water pollution.

We can generate $400 billion in economic activity and create 400,000 living-wage jobs for the next 10 years by converting the 23 million septic systems that were recorded on the 1980 census into nutrient removing distributed sewers at the average cost of $18,000 per home or less. (Estimates by Teal Limited [Rochester, Mass.] and NCS Wastewater Solutions [Pullayup, Wash.].)

The original intention was to provide municipal sewer for these properties. Unable to do it with the centralized approach the original intent has not been accomplished. It is achievable but not without a mandate to participate, reliable operations, and long-term financing. These features are available through existing sewer ordinances, but not through the onsite tradition.

Participation, reliability, etc., require planners to think in terms of sewer. However the only way we think of sewer is in terms of centralized systems, designed under comprehensive wastewater management planning, funded with federal dollars, and engineered and built over a period of years.

The expense of this approach is costing $60,000 to $70,000 per home on Cape Cod. On the other hand, recent Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.) case studies on decentralized applications have shown distributed sewer cost can be very competitive. For instance a project in Piperton, Tenn., installed a distributed wastewater management systems at a capital cost of $5000 to $7000 per home. (See the WERF project titled, When to Consider Distributed Systems in an Urban and Suburban Context, project number DEC3R06.)

 

Expanding the idea

Different conditions but similar opportunities exist from the central sewer side of infrastructure. Many existing central sewer systems are now hydraulically or organically overloaded. To create capacity in these systems requires significant upgrades or replacement requiring the same process of planning, funding, engineering, and construction that takes years to realize.

The ability to create incremental capacity at the outer reaches of the existing system through a distributed network of smaller systems is immediately available and so are the job opportunities it will create.

We know we need collaboration on the institutional level, the regulatory level, and the technology level. Why does it not occur?

Jim Nemke, retired Director of the Metropolitan Madison Wisconsin Sewer Authority addressed this issue in a 1999 WEFTEC pre-conference session. He said: “Watershed management plans have been abandoned because of the lack of an implementation authority beyond the point source permit program.”… “While regulatory authorities promote movement away from a command and control agenda, their structure remains command and control and this restricts the ability to form consensus.” …“The EPA, DNR, USDA, and those concerned with state health can’t cooperate sufficiently…and don’t.”

In November 2001, Tracy Meehan (then assistant administrator for Water at EPA) offered a similar insight when speaking to EPA’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. He said, “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.”…“The remaining water pollution problems are significantly more complex when compared with the problems that we have already addressed.” …“[They] require innovative solutions and entail a change in paradigm.”

 

Consolidating benefits

If we are unable to collaborate to change the paradigm, we need to enact legislation enabling institutions for water resource management. Stormwater and wastewater management need to be subsets of water resource management. From a wastewater perspective, water resource management districts need to take advantage of the best elements the onsite and central sewer traditions have to offer.

From the central sewer tradition the benefits include mandating participation, raising funds, assessing fees, placing liens senior to the mortgage, leveraging economies of scale, requiring responsible management, and eliminating restrictions on use of property. From the onsite tradition the benefits include rapid response permitting; infrastructure on-demand; lower costs for engineering, equipment, and installation; private funding; exemption from prevailing wage laws; and use of soils as part of the treatment process.

Combining these advantages and using them on, off, and around onsite and central sewer provides water resource management the same beneficial opportunities that are being provided by distributed and alternative power generation systems under the U.S. Department of Energy and the same opportunities for “context sensitive design” that are provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Decentralized wastewater treatment is about a portfolio of options and perspectives that its technologies have enabled. Among its most compelling are

  • cost-effective and risk-distributed economies of scale,
  • l ower capital and life cycle costs,
  • more cost-effective alignment of infrastructure supply and demand,
  • the ability to rapidly place performance-based processing power where it is needed, and
  • immediate capital and job formation through the provision of infrastructure.

When it comes to generating electricity, aided by government stimulus funds, a  distributed network is being built with a portfolio approach to technologies and service options. At the moment, doing the same for the wastewater industry appears impossible because, we have learned from the process that it takes too long, it is too expensive, and the decision structure is one based on policing compliance instead of encouraging innovation and renewal.

However, by embracing collaboration — and avoiding confrontation — we can leverage the technologies and perspectives of decentralized wastewater management to fulfill the necessary objectives. And along the way, stimulate immediate opportunities for capital and job formation.

Craig Lindell is founder and chief executive officer of Aquapoint Inc. (New Bedford, Mass.).

 

 

Below is the version that appeared in print.

 

Distributed wastewater infrastructure can advance job formation and watershed agenda

Craig Lindell

Decentralized or distributed wastewater management, like distributed information systems, places processing power where it is needed — on a just-in-time basis in a centrally managed network.

Because distributed wastewater management is modular, performance-based, scaleable, affordable, and immediately deployable, it can be used to build a distributed wastewater infrastructure that is more ecologically sound, socially equitable, and economically realistic than current approaches. It also can provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with an institutional framework to realize the watershed agenda and rapidly deploy capital for job formation and economic development.

These gains are accomplished by taking advantage of the economies of scale and favorable long-term financing typically associated with traditional sewer projects. Additional gains are derived from incorporating the benefits of just-in-time delivery and reduced engineering and installation costs typically associated with onsite treatment, as well as the lower capital equipment costs associated with decentralized wastewater treatment. All of these pieces are blended into a distributed architecture that is equitable, affordable, and ecologically reliable.

Distributed wastewater management addresses all of the above. What it requires is enabling legislation; incentives, such as the Massachusetts income tax credit for upgrades to septic systems (TIR 97-12: Personal Income Tax Credit for Failed Cesspool or Septic System Title 5);and the acceleration of permitting that has been mandated in some states.

Within some regulatory environments, experienced industry experts have successfully completed distributed wastewater infrastructure projects that were designed, engineered, permitted, and under construction in 120 days. Where properly structured, some projects have paid for themselves.

 

Defining the term

The Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee defines distributed wastewater as an architecture that includes centralized, decentralized, and onsite wastewater management, suggesting that the distributed approach can be deployed in a variety of ways on, off, and around existing infrastructure.

Centralized wastewater involves a single platform of technology, service, and organizational structure. It requires comprehensive, long-range wastewater management planning, a protracted period to apply for and secure funds, and significant engineering and construction time to realize.

On the other hand, the distributed approach offers a portfolio of technologies, services, processes, and organizational structures that may be rapidly assembled to match the immediate demands of the context being considered.

In Fairhaven, Mass., for example, West Island was too remote and too difficult to permit as an extension of its central system, so the Fairhaven Board of Health collaborated with the Fairhaven Public Works Department on a single conversion of 400 properties from noncompliant onsite septic systems to a code-compliant cluster system using existing sewer ordinances.

Most regulatory codes contain no specific prohibition of this distributed approach. What prevents its use is the lack of creative insight, political will, and incentives to encourage it.

 

Tracking the history

With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the nation had two basic approaches to treating wastewater: central sewer and onsite septic systems. A third, less well-known approach was clustered treatment, which is regulated by public health codes for safe disposal of wastewater underground or by environmental protection codes that were directed almost exclusively to prevent pollution of surface water and groundwater.

By 1985, the federal grants program for centralized sewers had been converted to a diminished revolving-fund loan program. By 1986, sustainable development, as a working model, had been defined, and EPA’s 1986 Needs Survey Report to Congress: Assessment of Needed Publicly Owned Wastewater Treatment Facilities in the United States acknowledged that 41 state water quality boards had listed septic systems as the first or second largest contributor to groundwater pollution.

About 10 years later, the agency in its 1996 Clean Water Needs Survey: Report to Congress endorsed decentralized wastewater treatment as a “permanent long term solution … to be evaluated on the same basis as traditional sewer.”

The impact of human communities on natural systems was far more complicated than issues of pollution control. With the 1986 and 1996 EPA reports, it was becoming apparent that the central and onsite septic approaches created in the early 1970s with their primary focus on pollution control did not comprehensively address the emerging water policy issues. In fact, these approaches were proving to be part of the problem.

 

Advancing the watershed agenda

In the years that followed, adapting human communities to the carrying capacities of the natural systems on which they were dependent became known as the “watershed agenda.”

Not long after being appointed assistant administrator for Water at EPA, Tracy Meehan, who held that position from 2001 to 2003, addressed the limits of natural systems. He identified the inability of the current economic, legal, and regulatory codes to address the complexities of water quality and supply. Meehan called for innovative solutions that would entail a “change in paradigm.”

Meehan acknowledged that to live within the limits of “ambient environmental standards” and the “assimilative capacities” of natural systems, we simply have to think differently about how we manage water.

His logic and arguments fell on deaf ears — nothing has changed. Before us now is the need to initiate integrated water resource and watershed management that is responsive to coastal-zone, ocean, and climate-change policies and allows for implementation of strategies to reduce our carbon, nutrient, and water footprints.

Meehan’s observations still hold. EPA does not yet know how to implement the watershed agenda through state and local governments.

Distributed wastewater management is readily available, affordable, deployable, and readily permitted by many jurisdictions. Therefore, it is arguable that we could immediately launch the watershed agenda by rapidly deploying capital into special utility districts defined as water resource management districts. Such districts could adopt the necessary sewer ordinances to convert onsite septic systems to cluster systems, as Fairhaven, Mass., did a decade ago.

 

Understanding the concept

Decentralized wastewater treatment is too often misunderstood to be about technology. In reality, the decentralized or distributed approach is about the portfolio of options that its technologies have enabled. Among the most important advantages are

  • economies of scale, compared to capital and life-cycle costs associated with centralized collection systems, as well as the distribution of monitoring and maintenance cost over a cluster of properties, compared to single-property onsite septic systems;
  • more cost-effective alignment of infrastructure supply and demand than either centralized or onsite systems;
  • the ability to place performance-based processing power where it is needed on a just-in-time basis in a centrally managed network;
  • the potential for capital and job formation that can result from providing infrastructure on demand; and
  • the cash flow advantages and property value increases that are available under sewer ordinances but not otherwise available under the onsite and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System codes.

Ultimately realizing the watershed agenda will require the institutional framework that incorporates Meehan’s “change in paradigm” and conforms to the observations outlined in The Clean Water Action Plan, which was introduced by President Bill Clinton in 1998 and charts a course emphasizing collaborative strategies built around watersheds and the communities they sustain.

However, at the moment, opportunities and obstacles exist at the state and local level. Our premise is that the more the principles and practices that are outlined in this column are incorporated into projects, the more cost-effective and responsive wastewater infrastructure will become.

 

C raig Lindell is founder and chief executive officer of Aquapoint Inc. (New Bedford, Mass.).

 

Making the most of tax credits

In Massachusetts, there is a unique opportunity to leverage the distributed approach to wastewater management into an institutional framework to support the watershed approach. The state offers a tax credit on 40% of the cost of septic system upgrades up to $1500 per year for 4 years. In other words, if you spend $15,000 or more to upgrade your septic system, your final out-of-pocket costs will be $9000.

The catch is that the average cost in Massachusetts to upgrade a septic system is $25,000 to $30,000. To tie into a new centralized sewer grid will cost even more — between $30,000 and $70,000. On the other hand, a reasonable estimate to connect to a clustered solution is only $12,000 to $18,000 per unit.

The fundamental dilemma is that right now citizens have no way to aggregate their interests into a clustered solution under the existing health codes. But water resource management districts could be created as public, private, or public–private specialty utility districts with specific performance and reporting requirements to enable clustered solutions.

If the only way a citizen could take advantage of the tax credit were to upgrade into such a district, public and private interests would be encouraged to create these entities.

Additionally, if such districts were required to adopt sewer-use ordinances similar to municipal systems, all properties within the district or adjacent to any new collection system installed by the district would be required to connect to the system, protecting public health and the environment at the lowest possible cost.

 

© 2010 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.