USDA: Technical Assistance and Training for Innovative Regional Wastewater Treatment Solutions

The USDA funded TAT Regional Wastewater Treatment Solutions project is a technical assistance and training pilot program for innovative rural wastewater treatment solutions in Alabama’s rural Black Belt. The Black Belt, originally named because of the region’s dark soil, is a 17-county region in Central Alabama characterized by its high African American population, rural character, lack of economic development (up to 40% of the population in some Black Belt counties lives below the U.S. poverty line), lower-than-average educational attainment, and lower-than-average access to health care. Exacerbating typical rural wastewater challenges in the Black Belt are the region’s poorly drained clay soils, which make traditional rural onsite wastewater systems, septic tanks and drain fields, ineffective. In sum, these conditions (lack of sewer infrastructure, clay soils, poor economic conditions, etc.) have resulted in the presence of raw sewage on the ground surface in approximately 50% of the rural homes of many Black Belt counties, a situation dubbed the “rural South’s invisible public health crisis” by the Montgomery Advertiser. Furthermore, infrastructure plays a key role in community well-being, both directly and indirectly, as communities with inadequate or deteriorating infrastructure struggle to attract businesses and industry, and poor communities lack the tax and economic base necessary to maintain and upgrade their infrastructure, which can lead to a vicious downward spiral.  

This project will address these interconnected public health-socioeconomic challenges by developing and piloting innovative and cost-effective wastewater technologies and strategic management models for the rural Black Belt region. This will include technical assistance guidance and training for rural communities in the region.

Cooperation and coordination with Consortium partners are essential because the challenge is complex and a  successful solution requires not just expertise in technology/management and experience working in the Black Belt, but also community relations, innovative technologies, potential regulatory modifications, community planning, traditional and alternative financing options, social considerations, education and training of operators/citizens, and the involvement of multiple partners and jurisdictions. The resources and assistance of the Consortium will significantly catalyze and leverage the results of this pilot program.

Achieving a decreased discharge of pathogens and other contaminants to the environment; improved water quality and public health; increased economic activity; and an improved quality of life in the Black Belt. The results will additionally provide proof-of-concept for a 21st century transition to a more resilient, distributed wastewater infrastructure, which can be deployed throughout Alabama and elsewhere in rural America. Specific tasks include the following:

  • Performing a county needs assessment
  • Evaluating and testing wastewater treatment options
  • Defining workable funding mechanisms
  • Developing appropriate technical, management and regulatory guidance.

In the Black Belt region of Alabama, wastewater challenges are both acute and well recognized, and substantial amounts of raw sewage and pathogens are being discharged onto the ground and to local watersheds because there are limited public sewers or functional septic systems. Many households lack any sort of wastewater system or have failing septic systems. Without access to affordable alternatives, many households opt for what is commonly known as “straight pipe” discharge, using a pipe to convey untreated wastewater from the toilet to a nearby pit, ditch, stream, waste ground, or other disposal area, where it is uncontained and accessible by animals or people.

Effective, single-home, wastewater management systems, typically different levels of septic tank-based systems, cost between $3,000 to $30,000 to install per home, depending on the soil conditions and all require some maintenance, such as residuals management, filter cleaning, pump servicing, etc., depending on the system type and complexity. The capital cost of onsite wastewater management systems is a major financial burden for poor, rural households, and long-term maintenance is typically lacking. Both the cost barrier and the lack of maintenance for onsite wastewater systems have led to widespread untreated sewage disposal, thus creating public health, environmental health, and human rights concerns. Over the last few decades, development for military operations, suburban development, urban redevelopment projects, and emergency relief, has led to the creation and use of small-diameter collection systems and modular wastewater treatment systems that can be remotely monitored and operated, and can assure a high degree of reliable high quality wastewater management at capital and operating costs that are competitive with those in large centralized systems. These innovative technologies have the potential to address wastewater challenges at different spatial scales and population densities, under different climate and water availability and quality levels, and to bring about a dramatic reduction in the cost of infrastructure for wastewater. Through the use of internet enabled sensors and controls, combined with local storage and modern, modular treatment systems, there is an unprecedented opportunity to assure affordable, high quality wastewater services that are customized on a local scale and decentralized. We hypothesize that recent advances in treatment, sensors and information technology have made analogous approaches to wastewater management the ideal solution for areas with low population density, low median income, and challenging soil conditions.

Location: Proper sanitation and cost-effective rural wastewater infrastructure solutions will help 1) positively impact economic prosperity in rural regions (communities without adequate infrastructure fail to attract and retain industry), 2) protect public health, and 3) improve the environmental health of local waterways in Alabama (the discharge of raw sewage to the ground surface across rural Black Belt counties estimated to be 2,000,000 gallons per day is an unacceptable public health risk).

While these problems are widespread in the Black Belt, selecting an appropriate initial study area is essential to optimize the short-term and long-term benefits of our proposed pilot project. The overall objectives of pilot site selection are to maximize the positive impacts to the study area while decreasing to near zero the probability of a failed effort. This means that we will focus on small, rural communities in a four-county area where decentralized clustered systems are a financially and technically feasible option, and can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for communities.

The following characteristics will be evaluated when identifying potential communities within the study area:

  • No existing community sewer system
  • Shrink-swell clay and/or high water table, precluding use of conventional septic systems
  • Currently failing wastewater systems, including straight pipes
  • In a jurisdiction where we networked sewer system are potentially legally permissible
  • Low income or lower-middle income communities that can connect
  • Strong interest and partnership from the local community
  • A local NGO, government, or commercial partner with experience/relationships in the area and strongly invested in the success of the project
  • Potential to expand the service area if the pilot is successful
  • Data transfer capabilities (e.g., internet, cellular) for remote monitoring of treatment
  • Eligibility of the entity for Rural Utility Service Water and Waste Disposal financial assistance

There are at least eleven counties in the Black Belt with soil conditions that meet the second criterion. Based on existing relationships, partnerships, and travel proximity, we have narrowed the focus of our initial exploration to three counties: Hale County, Marengo County and Wilcox County. All three of these counties have large regions with very low permeability soils. Further, in each county, we have existing partnerships and relationships that will yield a successful project.

Research: The overall goal of the Pilot is to develop innovative, cost-effective, and sustainable solutions to chronic wastewater problems in the Alabama Black Belt. Specific goals and objectives are, in collaboration with the ADPH and our partners in the Consortium for Rural Alabama Water and Wastewater, to:

  • Conduct a detailed wastewater needs assessment for the study area
  • Identify potential decentralized cluster locations, provide site assessments, consider and select effluent disposal/reuse options, evaluate and recommend appropriate collection and treatment technologies, and perform preliminary engineering design and site assessment
  • Create an innovative rural wastewater pilot testing facility at the Auburn Rural Studio to test and develop viable, cost-effective treatment strategies
  • Develop a community-specific affordability metrics framework and funding model in consultation with USDA Rural Development staff from Alabama
  • Develop a community-specific strategic management and regulatory model
  • Conduct an annual Black Belt Rural Wastewater Technical Assistance and Training Symposium and Workshop
  • Support the continuation of an ongoing successful pilot program in unincorporated areas of Lowndes County conducted by ADPH

Together, these activities comprise a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to addressing longstanding wastewater problems impacting the public health and socioeconomic well-being of a proud but distressed rural region.

The University of South Alabama
The University of Alabama
Auburn University

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