The City of Faith is a small town located in Meade County, in central South Dakota, and is a hub for cattle ranching, general livestock, farming, and providing accommodations for visiting travelers. With a population of 421, the city has approximately 192 sewer/water service connections to residents and businesses. The famous dinosaur T-Rex called “Sue” was found in an area not far from Faith.
The City of Faith needed to refurbish its entire wastewater collection system to address significant inflow and infiltration problems within the system. The city also needed a remedy for the persistent clogging of pipes from tree roots, the corroding condition of system manholes, and the improper connection of sewer service lines. The original wastewater collection system was installed in the 1920s using vitrified clay piping. In recent years, a few short segments have been replaced with newer pipe; however, the vast majority of the system (over 80%) is original material and is showing signs of significant deterioration. A Preliminary Engineering Report recommended the best option to remediate the city’s sewer collection issues was to “slip-line” the existing sewer collection piping and replace the corroding system manholes. Sliplining is a technique for repairing leaks or restoring structural stability to an existing pipeline. It involves installing a smaller, “carrier pipe” into a larger “host pipe”, grouting the annular space between the two pipes, and sealing the ends.
The city did an excellent job of long-term planning for the project. Over the last several years they were able to save $500,000 to contribute to the almost $2,000,000 project. MAP worked closely with the city and the local planning district, Black Hills Council of Local Governments, to access additional public financing for the project. With this assistance, the city was able to obtain a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for $515,000, a USDA Rural Development (RD) grant for $116,836, and a low-interest loan from USDA RD for $829,000. Coupled with the city’s $500,000 contribution to the project, the completed financing package made the project feasible and affordable for the community.
MAP provided technical assistance to the city in the bidding phase and during project construction, with the goal of ensuring the project moved along smoothly. Due to the multiple funding sources, it took coordination among organizations to ensure the funds were spent in the correct order.
When MAP asked Debbie Brown, Finance Officer for the City of Faith, about the project’s financial impact to the residents and businesses, she stated, “due to long-term planning and being able to leverage funds, the overall impact to the local residents and businesses was minimal and rates remain affordable for the city’s customers.”
The community’s long-term outcome of this project is they can provide dependable wastewater services to the residents and businesses in the City of Faith. The repairs to Faith’s wastewater system ensure the ongoing safety and health of the individuals living in the community.
A cross connection can be defined as any actual or potential connection between the public water supply and a source of contamination or pollution. Cross connections with potable piping systems have resulted in numerous cases of illness and even death. Historically, cross connections have been one of the most serious public health threats to a drinking water supply system and many times are present in a residential water system. In order for public water systems to deal with cross connections effectively, not only must laws regarding cross connections be enforced, but customers of those systems must be educated on potential cross connections and how to neutralize those hazards.
Kentucky water utilities are required by state law to determine if or where cross connections exist and to immediately eliminate them. Kentucky RCAP has assisted rural cities with drafting cross connection control prevention program ordinances to protect the health of their water customers. An effective cross connection control prevention program ordinance should include the following:
Purpose and Authority – Clearly state the purpose of the ordinance and the authority to enforce it.
Definitions – Clearly define terms in the ordinance like cross connection, auxiliary water supply, backflow, backflow prevention assembly, contamination, residential, non-residential, etc.
Requirements – Clearly communicate the requirements that the system will implement to protect the public water system against backflow for both residential and non-residential customers.
Inspections – The customer’s water system shall be open to inspection at all reasonable times to authorized representatives to determine whether cross connections or other structural or sanitary hazards exist.
Penalties – Water services to any premises shall be discontinued if it is discovered that a backflow prevention assembly required by this ordinance has been removed, bypassed, or if an unprotected cross connection exists on the premises. Service will not be restored until such conditions or defects are corrected.
As stated earlier, enforcing cross connection laws/ordinances is just part of the equation. Water customer education is paramount for a cross connection control program to be successful. What are some examples of educational materials that can be utilized to inform water customers regarding cross connections in the home? RCAP provides system specific cross connection brochures for water systems to distribute to their customers. An effective cross connection brochure should include the following.
Definition of Terms – Customers need to know what a cross connection is, the concept of backflow, the two types of backflow (backpressure and back siphonage), and corresponding definitions.
What is Considered a Potential Hazard? – Any connection between a customer’s drinking water and another source of water that combines the two when a backflow condition occurs is a potential hazard and can cause contamination. The common household garden hose is a prime example. Customers can unknowingly create a cross connection by:
Putting an attached hose into a full bathtub;
Putting the garden hose in a swimming pool to fill it;
Putting the garden hose down the drain to flush out debris when it is backed up; or
Connecting your garden hose to a plant fertilizer or bug spray unit.
What are the Dangers of Cross Connections? – Backflows due to cross connections can cause sickness and death. If a drop in water pressure occurs, the hose could act as a siphon and backflow contaminants back up into the water supply. This makes the water unsafe for the customer, their family, and their neighbors. In fact, over half of the nation’s cross connections involve unprotected garden hoses.
Tips for Customers to Protect Their Drinking Water
Check all plumbing connections to discover water uses that may pose a hazard to the public water supply.
Never place the end of a hose where it can backflow contaminants into your drinking water.
Leave at least a one-inch air gap between the end of a tap and a source of contamination.
Attach a hose connection vacuum breaker to threaded taps to prevent contaminated water from being siphoned through a hose. Vacuum breakers are relatively inexpensive and can be found at hardware and plumbing supply stores.
In addition to brochures, Kentucky RCAP has created and provided a static “hands-on” cross connection public education display to water systems. The static display contains potential cross connection home hazards (i.e. spigots/hoses, toilet components, cattle feeders, etc.) and the devices that can be used to neutralize those hazards. The static display can be utilized in a public place or in a classroom setting.
With all the challenges that we are facing with the ongoing pandemic, it is quite evident that we are all in this together. Water systems, water customers, and RCAP must continue to work collaboratively to eliminate cross connections to protect public health.
There are four seasons winter, spring, summer, and fall. Some places may not experience them all, but we need to prepare for it all, as the last few years have taught us. For those lucky enough to see the leaves change from green to bright orange and deep reds, then drop to the ground to racked into piles for fun or so the grass doesn’t die. It is the sign that fall has come and winter will soon arrive.
Is your water or wastewater system prepared for winter storms, freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and the dangerous ice they can bring?
According to Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms (2015)1, cold weather can impact operations and cause problems. The effects of the cold weather may have a costly and lasting impact on utilities that may include, but are not limited to:
Broken pipes throughout the distribution system
Loss of power and communication lines
Limited access to facilities due to icy roads or debris
Reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions
Source water quality impacts due to increased amount of road salt in stormwater runoff
Potential flooding risk due to snowpack melt and ice jams
Potential surface water supply challenges as ice and frozen slush can black valves and restrict intakes
Now is the time that utilities should think about the resilience of their systems. EPA’s Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms, lists ways utilities can prepare for, respond to and recover from the cold and winter storms.
Planning for extreme cold and winter storms can be as easy as monitoring for inclement weather. Being prepared for inclement weather can give utilities the time to gather extra equipment and supplies such as motors, chemicals, batteries, generators and fuel. It also gives them time to review and update the Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Double-check that the contact numbers are current for emergency response partners, such as the local Emergency Management Agency (EMA), Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), and other mutual aid agencies. Taking the time to prepare also ensures that utilities can schedule and assign duties to personnel as needed. Another helpful hint is to make sure that emergency funds are set aside, in advance, just in case they are needed later. Do not wait until an emergency happens and there are not enough funds to take care of the issue.
Responding to extreme cold and winter storms begins by conducting a damage assessment of the utility and service area as soon as possible. The system should inspect the facility components for damage, such as leaks and line breaks. The service area should be checked for downed power lines and power outages. Contact your local EMA and state regulatory/primacy agency as soon as possible if your water quality or quantity is affected. Customers should also be notified immediately of any boil water notices or service disruptions.
Recovering from extreme cold and winter storms includes completing any repairs to return the utility to normal service, if necessary. Damage assessments should be reviewed to identify the effectiveness of storm preparation. Make a checklist of the following questions and jot down the answers to help with the process.
What worked and what didn’t work?
What needs to be improved?
Were there enough funds set aside?
Do you need to apply for state and/or federal funding?
Review the ERP and identify measures that can prevent damage in the future
These are just a few ways that a utility can prepare for, respond to and recover from extreme cold and winter storms. EPA’s Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms goes into detail. It provides links to other good articles to have handy at this time of the year.
Take time to visit EPA’s website at https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2021-10/incident-action-checklist-extremecold_508c-final.pdf to find out if your utility is ready for the winter.
1 Environmental Protection Agency. (2015, January). Incident Action Checklist – Extreme Cold and Winter Storms. EPA. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from https://www.epa.gov/.
Photograph Credit: © Evgen / Adobe Stock
Our Nation’s aging utility infrastructure is gaining notable attention. Multiple factors such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an aging workforce, and natural disasters occurring more often, the need for utilities to transition to digital workflows is evident and the time to act is now. Many rural utilities are still reliant on paper utility maps and field operation workflows.
These paper-based workflows often result in inefficiencies such as lack of access to paper maps, weathered/aged paper, redundant data entry processes, illegible handwriting, and an inability to meet regulatory requirements with accurate data entry. Additionally, the aging workforce has been accustomed to performing their role relying solely on paper workflows and can be resistant to digital workflows.
This reliance on paper maps and workflows makes it more difficult to overcome industry challenges and is costlier to operate, thus the need for digital transformation. The benefits of digital transformation are well-known—such as reducing operations costs and providing a better system of records. This results in smarter asset management decisions, attaining better regulatory compliance, and having more satisfied customers.
Geographical Information Services (GIS) Bridges the Transition from Paper to Digital Mapping
GIS in its simplest form, is a tool that incorporates geographical features with tabular data in order to map, analyze, and collaborate. The pivotal piece of this technology is geography – meaning that the data is spatial. “Spatial” is defined as occupying a physical space on earth. Spatial data is usually accompanied by tabular data, known as attribute data. “Attribute data” is defined as additional information about a spatial feature. An example of this would be a water valve. The actual location of the water valve is the spatial data. Additional data such as valve manufacturer, type of valve, the date the valve was installed, and the number of turns to open would make up the attribute data. It is the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective tool through spatial analysis. To obtain the spatial location of the water valve, GPS (Global Positioning System) technology is used in conjunction with GIS software.
The benefits of utilities utilizing GIS are numerous:
Knowing where infrastructure components are located
Baseline for Asset Management
Creating a singley, leads to improved records management
Increased operational efficiency among workforce; data access available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a secure cloud-based solution
Improved proactive operations through efficient digital field operations and work order management procedures
Decreased reactive operations
Emergency preparedness and response
Meet regulatory compliance reporting
Transparency to the community and leaders
Theft reduction by more optimized water loss capability
The process can seem overwhelming for a rural community. Data collection is just the first step. There are stages in which digital transformation can be modeled once a utility decides to make the transition.
Smart Water Network Forum (SWAN), a global non-profit organization focused on advancing digital transformation in the water and wastewater industry provides the following Benefits of Digital Transformation for Water Utilities. (Source: https://www.swan-forum.com/blog/#Idrica-Digital-Transformation)
1- Data is translated into actionable information
The evolution of water meters, in relation to their data collection capabilities and communication systems, has led to unprecedented streams of information, which utility managers can use to make critical decisions proactively. However, today utilities only thoroughly analyze, on average, about 10 percent of the data they collect (2015 CIO Forum).
When conveniently used, Automated Meter Infrastructure (AMI) can help utilities take their digital transformation to the next level. Data collection is just the first step. For it to be useful, large data streams must be translated into actionable information via powerful analytical engines, allowing end-users to rapidly understand and act. This means that utilities should move from a data-siloed organization to a data-centric one, having full transparency and interoperability. According to Jaime Barba, CEO Idrica and global smart water expert, “data means nothing if it can’t be turned into information”.
2- Managers can make better decisions for a resilient future
As consumer behaviors change and climate change accelerates, there is a growing need for long-term planning to drive business decisions, but also for making accurate short-term decisions. Water utilities must build resilience by identifying potential impacts and developing adaptation plans. To build a sustainable water future it is necessary not only to have the adequate infrastructure but also to control in advance what is going to happen and why.
3- Utilities can move towards a customer-centric approach
Thanks to technological innovations related to water meters, utilities can now become proactive in customer management. The internet has enabled the transformation of many companies, provides enhanced detail of client information which, used properly, provides added value services to customers, reduces complaints, and can support industrial customers to optimize the use of water intake in their processes.
The benefits of digital transformation involve higher transparency with citizens, companies, and institutions, who will become key agents for a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, and for which their direct involvement is required.
4- Benefits of digital transformation: ROI is increased
The digitalization of water resource management means savings at both the operational and investment levels. By automating previously manual processes, a smart water approach in organizations generates greater efficiencies at a lower cost. Any water utility, regardless of its phase in its digital transformation journey, can see increases in return on investment (ROI) from past investments and make the most of existing technology structures by implementing technological solutions to build a digital structure. The savings achieved can also be the basis for further investments in digitalization, thus making this process sustainable.
RCAP has a network of talent able to assist many communities to take the steps towards digital transformation. Making an investment in rural America’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure provides an opportunity for communities to maintain sustainability and provide safe drinking water. Through GIS, sustainability becomes easier to achieve.
As a side note, we have just released our new GIS Guidebook, “The Role Mapping Serves for Your Small, Rural, or Tribal Utility”.
On October 3, Knox County (Ohio) Water and Sewer generously hosted a site visit to the Bladensburg Sand Bioreactor Wastewater Treatment Plant. We had great weather and a great discussion both on-site and afterwards at the Bladensburg Community Center, where Dr. Karen Mancl from Ohio State University presented slides that highlighted the differences between the single-pass and multi-pass designs of sand bioreactors. Some highlights from both discussions are below:
All the nearly 90 connections are served by septic tanks (individual, shared, and some cluster) and a small diameter sewer collection system. Half of the community’s flow is collected at a pump station due to elevation, then pumped up to the recirculation tank at the site of the sand bioreactor. The other half of the community’s flow is via gravity straight to the recirculation tank at the front of the sand bioreactor.
Recirculation allows the reactor to fit on a smaller footprint. It effectively increases the depth of the reactor by passing the influent through the same depth of media several times. On average, the raw influent makes up about 1/5 of the flow in the reactor, where the rest of the flow is already in some part of recirculation.
High flow – Rain Events
When there are heavy rains as is not uncommon in this ‘rain belt’ part of Knox County, the flow (raw influent and recirculation) that passes through the media is discharged more frequently, which means that some of that flow is not completing the average 5 trips through the media that is seen during normal/dry flow conditions. This is accomplished by a sort of float valve that diverts flow to the outfall when the discharge chamber fills to a certain volume. During normal flow conditions, flow continues to recirculate until that float valve raises to the necessary height in the tank to then divert flow to discharge. Jeff and Greg from the Bladensburg plant have not seen effluent quality suffer during these heavy rain events. However, if heavy rains were to continue for a long period, such as a month, as discussed later in regards to the control panel, then treatment performance will suffer. Also, they both noted that they do not see notable I&I in their collection system (i.e. the pump run time at the pump station and recirculation tank do not vary much from dry weather flows during heavy rains). Additional flow during rain events is believed to essentially only be rainfall caught by the sand bioreactor field itself. Professor Mancl noted that sand bioreactors are great options in areas with highwater tables or problematic soils since the bioreactor is lined with a membrane and is not affected by groundwater.
A big question from some operators and engineers leading up to this site visit had been what the headworks for a municipal sand bioreactor consists of. When discussed at Bladensburg, staff explained that there is no screen for grit removal like mechanical plants. Essentially, the septic tanks prior to the small diameter collection and the baffles at the pump station and recirculating tank serve to capture grit and protect their pumps. This design has been effective for their system’s 10 years of operation. However, they did emphasize that in hindsight they would have preferred to have all flow go to the pump station and to have a shallower recirculation tank. Staff explained that the tank is around 20 feet deep due to elevation needs to receive the gravity flow, which creates difficulties in servicing the tank and safety concerns. Even though sending the flow from the other half of town would mean roughly doubling the energy used for pumping, staff believe it would be well worth it to facilitate O&M.
Related to this point, Professor Mancl explained that smaller sand bioreactors could have been located at the site of the pump station and elsewhere, so that sewage doesn’t need to be pumped, just the treated effluent, which is just as easy to pump as drinking water and to have the treated effluent flow to single outfall (as was done with a fixed media treatment system in Amesville, Ohio, though they used textile media rather than sand).
The outfall is down the short hill from the bioreactor and is fed from a pipe that transmits flow diverted by the float type valve next to the recirculation tank. The outfall pipe also has a flap that flow pushes open, but is heavy enough to prevent muskrats from entering the pipe. We all noted the low flow of the creek and commented on how high quality the effluent must be to not impact the stream (Wakatomika Creek) water quality. Jeff agreed and provided a copy of the publicly available MORs.
The main difficulty that Bladensburg has had with its system is the Siemens control panel. It has not been reliable for them and at one point they had to manually control dosing for about a month. During that month of operation, they would rotate where dosing was occurring on the sand bioreactor approximately two times per day, rather than the control panel having each pump rotate through its 4 different spray application lines. This meant that the sand bioreactor did not receive the intervals of oxygen reaching the microorganisms between doses and effluent quality was observed to be poorer during this month. During normal operations, the pumps and manifolds do the odd numbered application lines one time (2 minutes of application followed by 9 minutes of rest), and then it doses the even lines on the next cycle, repeating this cycle over 24 hours. This allows time for air to diffuse throughout the bioreactor.
Best practices and Cost Considerations
One of the cons of a sand bioreactor is that they do require periodic weeding, which as all gardeners know, is a tedious task. While the operator has difficulty meeting time requirements at the plant because there is not much to do, outside of sample collections, the O&M of weeding was an obstacle to the County choosing to install another one of these systems. Professor Mancl shared suggestions based on her research and the success of the Harrison, Ohio, in using a large plastic covering to kill the weeds and weed seeds that you move from section to section of the bioreactor every few weeks. The more recent solution that Harrison uses is to allow goats to weed the bioreactor.
Another best practice that Professor Mancl shared was during the flushing of the application lines that apply the waste to the sand to install quarter turn valves on the ends of the application lines and to cut a pvc tool and hook you can use from a standing position to open the caps and turn the valves. This avoids having to get on your hands and knees to open the caps and turn the valves by hand.
Professor Mancl also noted that 2mm sand was used in the installation which added a lot of unnecessary cost to the project. The price jump from 3mm (recommended and cheaper) to 2mm is large.
Both Bladensburg and Harrison have noted that U/V bulb fouling has been very slow, only requiring wiping down of bulbs 1-2x / year.
Jeff also said he was very skeptical of this system since he had not worked with one before becoming the engineer for Knox County Water and Sewer. The sand bioreactor had already been up and running for about 4 years when he joined, but he said it has proven itself reliable and effective and that he “would definitely recommend it”, despite having had one lingering question. He wasn’t sure if he needs to plan to replace the media and wasn’t sure if the increase in total dissolved solids was cause for concern, which normalized at a higher level than when the plant originally began operations. Professor Mancl explained that the TDS is indicative of salts and hypothesized that more water softeners may have been installed in the community and could explain the new higher TDS, especially in the context of such a small customer based (around 90 connections). Regardless, she pointed out that TDS has not caused any difficulty in meeting permit/plant performance requirements. Professor Mancl may not have commented specifically on the media replacement question, but from previous conversations with her it is understood that the media shouldn’t need to be replaced as long as it is the proper non-limestone sand and is dosed properly.
The sand bioreactor is roughly 40 x 400 ft or around 1/3 of an acre. The spacing of rows of solar panels was explained as well as how around $10,000/ year pf potential energy offset could be generated by installing a little over 300 panels on that space, assuming $0.10 kWh. The county administrator was also present, and we discussed the County’s interest in solar and its potential on this site. Jeff had expressed an interest in it if the payback period can be achieved in 10 years or less. This may be something worth looking into further.
It’s our hope that by sharing stories of lessons learned both good and bad, we can help small rural communities choose the best infrastructure solutions that meet their needs. On October 27, Ben Howard from GLCAP is delivering a webinar to the rest of the RCAP network that will share cover what has been learned and discussed by the Alternative Wastewater Solutions Committee regarding sand bioreactors. If you would like to join, please register here.
To have a group of people with different cultures, you do not need to have varying ethnicities or countries of origin. By nature, any group of people has a variety of culture. Culture can be defined as shared, often unspoken, understandings in a group that shapes identities and the process of making meaning. Conflict amongst and between cultures arises when there are differences in norms, values, and beliefs that dictate appropriate behavior, perceptions of risk and/or uncertainty, established hierarchies, power structures, authorities, and communication methods.
While conflict is not inherently bad, it can impede progress on a project. Resolving or reducing conflict successfully requires both the facilitator and the participants to reflect on their own culture and ability to take the perspective of another. The resolution of conflict begins with understanding the cultures of the people involved in the group. Allowing time and space for the identification of longer-term patterns of attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, interactions, policies, and structures with an emphasis on the emotional context to disputes can provide clarity on where conflict is likely to arise. The dynamic systems approach entails an exploration of attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions to find ways of developing new and constructive patterns within the group. By looking first at the roots of each person’s perspective, the group can more easily define actionable, high-impact solutions.
There are two main functions of any social system, such as a community. Internal integration is where the group has a common identification which provides a source of esteem, status, and a sense of inclusion to the members. The other function is external adaptation where everyone is an outsider that is assessing the expectations of others and using social cues to understand what is appropriate within the environment. A balance of these two functions creates an environment where multiculturalism can thrive, and all members feel valued for their uniqueness as well as confident to navigate new environments.
Utilizing the tools of the Integration-Adaptation model: awareness, adaptivity, accuracy, and accountability, will set a facilitator and a group up for success in collaboration. These core components of the model can be evaluated on an individual level as well as an organizational level:
Awareness of cultural assumptions, cultural rules, racial-ethnic identities, privilege, class, and other components of the perception of ourselves and others.
Accuracy in reading situations, valuing and verifying data, and recognizing preconceived theories, beliefs, and stereotypes.
Adaptivity to situational demands in conflict.
Accountability to self, others, and community by requesting and accepting feedback which is then incorporated into reforms and solutions.
With every individual in a group making sense of and experiencing one another and the environment from a different perspective, conflict in groups is inevitable. Cultural intelligence describes the ability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. New cultural contexts occur in daily life whenever at least two people are interacting. Intercultural competence comes with the repeated practice of questioning the generalizability of our assumptions and behaviors.
By establishing a multicultural dynamic within our own organizations and sharing that perspective and philosophy with the communities we serve, we can better facilitate difficult conversations and find solutions to problems with less conflict.
As the site of Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s 1916 raid into the United States and the base of President Woodrow Wilson’s “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico led by General “Black Jack” Pershing, few communities have more historic ties to Mexico than the Village of Columbus. Located three miles north of the US-Mexican border and its sister city of Palomas, Mexico, this community of approximately 1,500 residents has seen growth in tourism and economic activity in recent years due in part to its unique setting. Continued development of the port of entry at the US-Mexico border is expected to further enhance economic activity.
Despite these trends, this largely Hispanic community faces water and sewer system infrastructure challenges common to rural communities throughout the United States. In April 2022, the Village’s Public Works Director, Robert Gomez, reached out to Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) to conduct a sewer rate study. The purpose of the study is to develop fair and sustainable rates that will support proposed infrastructure improvements, including the construction of a new facultative pond named in the Village’s 2022 Asset Management Plan. Existing sewage facilities include two treatment plants (main and port of entry), two lift stations, and approximately 21 miles of PVC collection line.
Following the community work plan developed for the Village, RCAC has worked closely with municipal staff to gather information needed for the sewer rate study including budget, sales, and asset data. These activities were supplemented by a site visit in late July 2022 to inspect existing facilities. RCAC will discuss and share preliminary rate recommendations at upcoming public meetings. With the incorporation of public input, RCAC expects to supply final recommendations for council adoption in the coming months.
By Traci McQuary, Mississippi State Coordinator, Communities Unlimited (CU)
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 18 million households, or 25% of all households in the United States, dispose of their wastewater using onsite and decentralized wastewater systems, more commonly referred to as septic systems. The performance and maintenance of these systems are a significant concern for homeowners and the environment.
Although state and federal laws set minimum environmental and health standards, local officials and individual homeowners are responsible for protecting themselves and their communities from wastewater-related illnesses, like E. coli, Salmonella, and Cholera. Septic system owners are ultimately responsible for the operation, monitoring, and maintenance of their onsite septic system.
Septic systems that are not properly maintained will fail, leading to significant environmental and health concerns. Failing septic systems allow untreated sewage to pool on or under the ground. This poses a health risk to children, the elderly, the environment and provides an ideal breeding ground for flies, mosquitoes, and other disease-carrying insects. It can contaminate nearby water sources and wells. Outbreaks of waterborne illnesses are frequently traced back to contaminated groundwater.
In many states, local health departments issue permits to install septic systems according to state laws that govern public health protection. Under most regulatory programs, the local permitting agency conducts an initial individual site assessment to determine whether sufficient space is available and checking that the soil type can provide adequate treatment. These programs also establish guidelines to ensure that groundwater resources will not be threatened, and specify the appropriate distances from groundwater wells, buildings, driveways, property lines, and surface waters such as ponds or lakes. however, very few permitting agencies conduct inspections after the new septic system is installed, nor do they implement management programs to monitor the continued upkeep and functionality of septic systems while the system is in use.
Unfortunately, the current regulatory structure throughout much of the nation lacks the enforcement of acceptable performance of septic systems, so homeowners need to conduct regular maintenance on their septic systems. The most cost effective and long-term option for meeting public health and water quality goals in rural America is for homeowners to have a regularly scheduled inspection to certify that their septic system is being adequately maintained. Repairs are often left undone because homeowners cannot afford them, or repairs are done by the homeowner who is often not an expert in onsite systems.
To ensure that homeowners have correct and up to date information to maintain, operate and keep their septic system performing to satisfactory standards, the following are some examples that individual states, tribes and local governments could do:
Improve homeowners’ understanding of the role decentralized systems play in protecting local water quality and public health;
Support homeowners in suburban or rural communities in meeting their infrastructure and development needs by providing outreach and education materials on decentralized technology. The EPA offers materials and resources on their website called SepticSmart. They provide homeowner education on septic systems and promote awareness in caring for them. https://www.epa.gov/septic/septicsmart-homeowners;
Improve local decision-making through improved public awareness, education programs, and information material. RCAP can provide classes specific to each state or territory for homeowners like Decentralized Wastewater (Septic Systems) Basics for Homeowners.
If you or your community have questions or concerns on your onsite/decentralized systems, please contact your local RCAP office as we have resources for both TA and training to help protect public and environmental health for you, your family and your community. Many areas across the country have server challenges with septic systems and wastewater disposal. RCAP will be helping provide training and technical assistance as part of EPA and USDA “Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap” Community Initiative.
Before joining the RCAP National Office staff in May, Ami Keiffer worked as a rural development specialist at RCAC, providing economic and community development technical assistance to rural and tribal communities through stakeholder facilitation and capacity development. As a former TAP, we wanted to get her perspective on the value of RCAP’s national conference as it returns as an in-person event for the first time since 2019.
RCAP: For those unfamiliar with the National Conference, tell me a little about it?
Ami: The conference is like a big reunion with people who share the same interests and passions as you! I haven’t had the chance to attend in person yet, but I’m looking forward to connecting with people in person this year. For anyone who is new to the conference, I would encourage them to attend sessions on topics that are unfamiliar so they can understand the depth of services we offer in the field.
RCAP: As a TAP, what is the conference like?
Ami: I found the conference to be very informative. As a managerial and financial TAP, I liked hearing stories about technical services that were underway in the field and how TAPs are working with communities to bring about change.
RCAP: What are you most looking forward this year as a member of the National Office?
Ami: Selfishly, I’m looking forward with connecting with folks from RCAC. But I’m also excited to meet the people I have been emailing and having virtual meetings with about Treatment Works.
RCAP: The conference will be held in person this year – what are you most looking forward to in that aspect?
Ami: Being new to RCAP, I’m looking forward to meeting people face to face – I think that will be invaluable! And of course, reconnecting with the RCAC folks.
RCAP: What advice would you give to someone attending for the first time?
Ami: First time attendees should branch out and attend a variety of sessions, not just ones that deal with your day-to-day work. Take advantage of being away from the office to take in everything going on in the network and build relationships with peers you may not know.
RCAP: What topics are you looking forward to this year?
Ami: For me, it’s conflict resolution. This facilitation skill will be critical to assisting small utilities across the country as they navigate drought, rate increases, and regionalization issues.