USDA: Technical Assistance, Education, and Training for Sustainable Wastewater Management in the Rural Black Belt of Alabama

The Technical Assistance, Education, and Training for Sustainable Wastewater Management in the Rural Black Belt of Alabama is a USDA funded project. This project is a multi-faceted, science and socioeconomic-driven approach to address the wastewater problem that builds upon and extends our ongoing work in a four-county region to the entire rural Alabama Black Belt, while also incorporating advances in geospatial technology for planning, as well as considerations for innovative/cost-effective technologies, decentralized cluster systems, long-term sustainability, environmental justice, and economic development. Our holistic approach aligns with the USDA’s philosophy that “sanitary waste disposal systems are vital not only to public health, but also to the economic vitality of rural America.”
This project will address these public health-socioeconomic challenges through a series of interconnected tasks, including

  • Completing an infrastructure needs assessments for each Black Belt county
  • Developing geospatial databases and methodologies that can be used for location-specific wastewater technology selection and prioritization
  • Identifying, testing, and developing a suite of viable onsite wastewater options
  • Developing life cycle cost estimates, including environmental impact and “cradle-to-grave” capital and operations and maintenance costs
  • Developing region-wide management strategies to lower operations and maintenance (O&M) costs for ensuring long-term system sustainability
  • Piloting a market-based managed onsite wastewater treatment system (OWTS) approach through subcontracts to two OWTS companies, working in separate rural areas of the Black Belt
  • Identifying viable funding mechanisms and the technical assistance needed by rural communities to obtain funding
  • Identifying needed changes to state regulations and laws (e.g., to support regional management entities and septage management)
  • Improving and implementing education and outreach strategies to enhance workforce development, training, licensing, and entrepreneurship

Solutions to wastewater management in the Black Belt to protect public health and the environment are complex and multi-faceted. They require detailed planning, innovative technologies, regulatory modifications, economic considerations, traditional and alternative financing options, education, outreach, and the involvement of multiple partners. The following is a list and brief description of parallel, interconnected tasks that this project will accomplish.

  • A wastewater “needs study” will be completed for each county in the study area.
  • This project will use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to compile location-specific information about wastewater infrastructure in the Black Belt and develop new methodologies for prioritizing areas of greatest need.
  • Life cycle cost assessments (capital, operations and maintenance, replacement, energy, etc.) will be performed for a variety of wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal/reuse technologies/strategies.
  • Potential wastewater management options will be identified, designed, and field tested for performance, optimization, cost, ease of implementation, and social acceptance.
  • This project will build upon knowledge gained from our previous work to (1) collect survey responses from electric utilities and cooperatives to explore their feasibility as potential regional management entities and learn from their management models; and (2) conduct interviews with community citizens and institutional stakeholders to better understand community needs and preferences and examine their (mis)alignment with institutional priorities.
  • Financing and loan repayment options in use in other states will be investigated and evaluated for possible application in the Alabama Black Belt.
  • Identification of needed regulatory changes and the development of alternative strategies is another key to successful implementation of appropriate wastewater management in the Black Belt. This project will work with our contacts at the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), ADEM, and other CARWW partners to facilitate regulatory reform.
  • This project will partner with community colleges in the Black Belt, the Hale County College and Career Center, and the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board (AOWB) to develop training materials and one-year certificate and two-year associate degree programs for wastewater treatment plant operators and onsite wastewater installers.
  • One of the major project activities, led by Auburn Rural Studio, will be to facilitate the community relations, outreach, and expansion of the Auburn Rural Studio system throughout the Newbern area. The Newbern system will serve as a “demonstration system” to show other communities with straight pipes and failing septic systems how adequate wastewater management is achievable for rural towns in the Black Belt of Alabama.
  • Wastewater treatment technology testing will include a range of physical/chemical and biological treatment methods, including full-scale testing (Orenco AdvanTex textile-based attached growth system), pilot-scale testing (mounds, sand filters, phase-inversion membranes), and bench-scale testing (membrane-based technologies, etc.).
  • This project will evaluate the status of septage management in Alabama, review approaches used in rural areas of other states, and identify acceptable septage disposal management options.

Although wastewater challenges in rural areas in the U.S. are not uncommon, few places face the challenges of the Alabama Black Belt due to its unique demographic, socioeconomic, historical, and geographic characteristics. The Black Belt, originally named because of the region’s dark soil, is an 18-county region in Central Alabama characterized by its high African American population, rural character, lack of economic development, lower-than-average educational attainment, and lower-than-average access to health care. Exacerbating typical rural wastewater challenges are the region’s poorly drained, shrink-swell clay soils that prevent wastewater effluent from draining into the subsurface, causing conventional onsite wastewater systems (e.g., septic tanks with drain fields) to fail. 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 obtain, maintain and upgrade their infrastructure. The entirety of the project area is in the “persistent poverty” category, indicating that at least 20% of the population of these counties have been in poverty over the last 30 years.

Location: The project study area encompasses the fifteen Alabama Black Belt counties in “persistent poverty”: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Sumter, and Wilcox. Each of these counties meet the criteria for being considered a “persistent poverty” county according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Work on this project will be explicitly limited to rural “populated place areas” under 10,000 persons.

Research: The overall goals of the project are to enhance the availability and application of innovative, cost-effective, and sustainable solutions to chronic wastewater problems in the Alabama Black Belt. The project’s research builds upon and extends our ongoing work while also incorporating advances in geospatial technology, managed OWTS, and considerations for long-term sustainability, environmental justice, and economic development.

  • Continue to coordinate the CARWW, holding biennial meetings with increased attendance, and expand membership to additional stakeholders
  • Complete a wastewater needs assessment for each county in our study area, identifying capital projects that would provide adequate wastewater management and estimating the associated costs, including an innovative geospatial model that can be used to both prioritize needs and evaluate potential solutions (e.g., install OWTS, connect to existing sewer) for individual parcels, including the incorporation of CoreLogic parcel data
  • Evaluate wastewater treatment technologies for performance, cost, and feasibility of application in the Black Belt of Alabama, including testing wastewater treatment technology performance at lab-scale (at UA and USA), pilot-scale (at UA and Auburn Rural Studio testbed), and full-scale (testbed) and development of life cycle costs for various technologies to minimize capital and ongoing costs and provide innovative approaches for cost control
  • Partner with two OWTS companies to implement managed OWTS in the rural Black Belt
  • Develop and implement a program for education and outreach in the Black Belt, building on existing Science Research and Education Network (SciREN) activities for K-12 students and ongoing collaborations with the Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF), Hale County Middle School and the Hale County College and Career Academy (see letters)
  • Enhance workforce development and entrepreneurship opportunities to create more and better market opportunities, including the enhancing training and licensing programs to both create jobs and enhance community infrastructure
  • Conduct weekly surface water quality sampling (baseline and post-intervention) and sediment sampling to evaluate the adverse impacts of inadequate wastewater management on transport of pathogens and other contaminants in our study area
  • Evaluate septage management options in the Black Belt region, existing challenges, the approaches taken in other states, and the potential for expansion of those options
  • Develop and implement regional management strategies for achieving sustainable systems operation and maintenance
  • Evaluate and identify needed changes to state regulations and laws (e.g., to support regional management entities and septage disposal) and recommend alternatives

The University of South Alabama
The University of Alabama
Auburn University
Texas A&M University

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