Dig Deep: Decentralized Wastewater Innovation Cohort

Video produced by DIGDEEP, available on YouTube.

Everyone deserves a working toilet, but in some places that’s easier said than done. That’s why DigDeep created the Decentralized Wastewater Innovation (DWI) Cohort, a community-driven effort to improve understanding of the wastewater challenges remote communities face across the US, the solutions being developed, and the ways policymakers can improve the impact, sustainability, and scalability of those innovations. The DWIC creates meaningful connections between rural communities piloting innovative solutions to tough wastewater challenges—from Alaska to New York—through facilitated working groups, site exchanges, and even trips to Washington DC to meet with regulators.

This project aims to provide collaborative insight into the issue of inadequate wastewater treatment for rural communities throughout the United States. The DWIC aims to create meaningful change by making informed policy recommendations to Congress, the U.S. EPA, and the USDA.

More than 2.2 million Americans lack access to basic plumbing (DigDeep & US Water Alliance). In some cases, these Americans live in areas where a centralized wastewater system is not technically or economically feasible. Decentralized wastewater technologies —from traditional septic systems to advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems—are often key to connecting communities with the basic sanitation services they need. Decentralized systems make up approximately 20-25% of all wastewater systems nationwide (USEPA, CDC, and ASCE). These systems have lacked visibility, adequate funding, consistent regulation, and incentives for innovation over the past decades. Federal initiatives such as the US EPA’s Decentralized Wastewater Management MOU Partnership and the USDA’s Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program have sought to alleviate these issues. Despite progress however, impacted communities still experience significant barriers, including the lack of regulatory, political, and economic support required for decentralized wastewater systems to be successful. For example, differing regulations by state (e.g., application of State Revolving Funds) have created non-uniform access to support for these wastewater systems. Compounding these issues, communities without basic sanitation access face unique obstacles such as water-borne illnesses, environmental contamination, and increased psychological stress (DigDeep & U.S. Water Alliance). There is an urgent need to rectify the wastewater injustices faced by these communities, especially now that significant federal funding is available to implement solutions. The DWI Cohort is committed to supporting federal agencies in closing the US water and sanitation gap as programs such as those introduced in the IIJA come online.

Location: Rural regions throughout the United States

Research: Decentralized systems make up approximately 25% of all wastewater systems nationwide, but for decades these systems have lacked visibility, adequate funding, consistent regulation, and incentives for innovation. The DWI Cohort develops actionable policy recommendations to accelerate effective decentralized wastewater solutions and close the Water Gap for the 2.2M+ Americans without access to basic plumbing identified in DigDeep’s groundbreaking report, Closing the Water Gap in the United States: An Action Plan.

The DWIC strategic focus areas include:

  • Understanding the current and future funding landscape within the decentralized wastewater space (including federal, state and local funding sources and pending legislation supporting decentralized wastewater) and to help agencies ensure that those funds make it to the communities who need them most
  • Providing a voice to overlooked frontline communities who rely exclusively on decentralized systems to handle their wastewater, by soliciting support from local, state, and federal lawmakers and promoting policy that’s responsive to real and pressing needs
  • Promoting the development and regulation of alternative wastewater technologies that are more affordable, non-proprietary, fundable, and robust enough to serve the wide range of contexts within the decentralized wastewater space
  • Increasing the visibility of the decentralized wastewater sector and the communities it serves through strategic messaging that lifts the veil on a relatively unknown human rights issue that must be urgently addressed by policymakers and the public

The 2022 cohort members:

Navajo Water Project

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Stony Brook University

Wastewater Alternatives and Innovation

Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program

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