Reducing Wastewater Management Costs by Revising the Governing Systems

The below article was written by our founder, Craig Lindell.

In 2001, G Tracy Mehan, then the Assistant EPA Director for the Office of Water, addressed the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. His presentation, “Building on Success – Going Beyond Regulation” outlined reasons for what he called a “change in paradigm.” He emphasized:

  • “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.”

Mehan’s comments reflect that with the turn of the century we began to think about wastewater and its management in dramatically different ways. In the years since, wastewater is increasingly seen as a resource instead of a pollutant. Point source water pollution control, which is the governing system, regulates central sewer manages wastewater as a pollutant. It is technology based, focused on a singular objective, skeptical, authoritarian, uniformly prescriptive and punitive.

Integrated water resource and watershed management are the policy initiatives that consider wastewater a resource. Their intent is collaborative, inquisitive, natural systems and community based, diversely adaptive and enabling. Furthermore it’s focused on a broad matrix of variables that characterize the inter-relationships among human communities and the natural systems on which they depend.

We are at the end of an infrastructure cycle and at the beginning of a new policy era. Now, the question for most communities is, “In which infrastructure should we invest?” Herein lies a dilemma and an opportunity.

The policy literature recognizes that in order to achieve the watershed agenda changes in institutions and legislation are likely essential.  (See: The Clean Water Action Plan, 1998, p 87 and Charting New Waters, 2010, p.16). Unfortunately, while the policy suggests what is needed, it does not tell us how to accomplish it. At the present time communities on the leading edge of this change in paradigm are forced to implement the watershed agenda under the governing system of point source water pollution control. There is some evidence that this can be a protracted and often litigious (i.e. costly) path.

Distributed, aka Decentralized, Wastewater Systems Explained

What makes the watershed approach so compellingly worth the effort is the potential in scalable, distributed sewer. This language is critical.

          • Scale can be determined by the unique characteristics of the site.
          • Scale also allows for delivery incrementally and on a just in time basis.
          • With the distributed approach processes can be assembled into a centrally managed network.
          • Using the sewer ordinances allows the municipality to assess fees, raise funds, and aggregate participation. It also moves property out from under the land use and property limitations of the health codes. Thereby creating the opportunity to improve property values.
          • Eliminating the centralized collection reduces the cost of the most expensive aspect of the system.
          • Water reuse can be achieved by off-loading wastewater from the main system and treating it at the site.
          • Scalable distributed sewer also has the potential to:
            • Reduce electrical costs.
            • Allow communities to convert onsite systems with betterment financing.
            • Allow for developers to build wastewater the way they build roads and give it to the community.

Communities and utilities are beginning to transcend the focus on prescribed technical solutions. This opens as many of the ways and means possible to address the conditions found in each unique watershed.

Altering public policy is a legislative responsibility. However, the institutions and programmatic structures of point source water pollution control are so comprehensive in their design and so universal in their application, so preoccupied with compliance and so unassailable in their authority that even the legislative authority that created them seems powerless to modify their mandates.

The price being paid for these circumstances includes long delays and the dislocation between demand and its fulfillment. Much of this is documented in twenty-five years of unfulfilled comprehensive wastewater management plans.  In addition are the delays in realizing the benefits of immediate capital and job formation and their inherent multiplier effects.

The reality is that scale is no longer an inhibitor to compliance. Accordingly, a distributed approach to sewer enables us to place processing power where it is needed, on a just in time basis, and in a centrally managed network. Decentralization is not an alternative to conventional sewer. Rather, it enables us to rapidly deploy solutions on, off, and around the existing infrastructure. A distributed design approach to infrastructure will quickly reveal new insights into economies of scale.

The technologies, the soils science, the EPA demonstration projects and guidance documents and early stage market illustrations, as well as the private investment capital to realize an adaptive infrastructure, are already available in the marketplace.

We need legislative initiatives to implement the watershed agenda.  And furthermore to create enabling design and administrative structures sufficient to meet performance-based standards without the prescriptive restrictions and the associated costs of point source water pollution control.

We need to end the politics of neglect with respect to our water resources.

We need to stop straining community budgets to study problems and litigate outcomes.

We need to consider the creation of water resource management districts within which all wastewater management would be a subset.

We need to provide the aspirations and values in the watershed policy literature with the same level of legislative and institutional authority that the Clean Water Act provided for water pollution control.

There is nothing in this wastewater management initiative that the institutions for health or pollution control or public and private interest resist. They share common aspirations for a healthy economy and ecological integrity.

It is a choice we have already made in twenty-five years of watershed policy literature. Its implementation is now a legislative and institutional imperative and our civic and ecological responsibility.