Obstacles & opportunities facing decentralized wastewater treatment
This is the last of three articles suggesting that decentralized wastewater treatment fulfill its potential when it is:
- Designed as a distributed network of performance-based treatment solutions;
- Organized under the municipal sewer ordinances and centrally managed;
- Contractually obligated to environmental results standards;
- Responsive to market demand; and
- Consistent with watershed and integrated water resource management principles.
I have explored the insights of a new policy format and looked at a variety of demands for new infrastructure that are affordable and often capital forming. Here, I will explore obstacles and opportunities for reform.
To identify obstacles to leveraging reform it is essential to acknowledge the “holistic” (WEF) and “complex” (EPA) nature of the “new world of water” as well as the demand side economics necessary for an infrastructure for integrated water resource management. This new context where wastewater is a resource exposes the limits of single purpose, command and control institutions and their inability to address complexity.
These limits manifest themselves as “policy resistance” and it is “policy resistance” that is much the obstacle to releasing the potential in the watershed agenda.
Systems theory offers instructive insight into leveraging change. In complex systems theory:
- The relationships between elements in a system are as important as the elements themselves;
- Feedback loops of action and reaction almost always affect the original actor; and
- Of all the elements of a complex system, the most limiting factor will generally be the highest point from which to change.
Because the premise is that watershed and integrated water resource management are best served by a performance-based infrastructure it is arguable that the single purpose institutions that limit this perspective are among the most limiting factors in adaptive change. Among the most limiting and most resistant factors are the environmental health codes.
Successful release from the policy limitations of single purpose institutions can be measured by their response capacity of those institutions to the principles and aspirations inherent in the pressures for change.
With respect to the current Health, DEP and NPDES codes, one might ask do they address the emerging recognition that community and natural systems preservation properly structured are an essential foundation to a sustainable future.
The purpose here is that, they conform with the “origins of a watershed framework for conservation,” which factors include:
- It would be community based;
- It would integrate economic reality and environmental protection;
- It would be technology driven;
- It would be based on collaboration and not confrontation; and
- It would be led by the nonprofit and private sectors and not by government.
Will the factors resolve or inhibit those issues of primary concern to the public for which wastewater management is essential, such as:
- Water quality and supply;
- Property values;
- Economic development;
- “Smart Growth” and “Green Growth”;
- The preservation of recreational water resources and other natural systems services; and
- The building of infrastructure in a timely manner to support fast growing regions.
The capacity to release the economic potential of the demand side is available in the Wisconsin Green Tier Program and the Massachusetts Environmental Results Permitting Program where command and control mandates are replaced with more efficient “command and covenant” environmental results. Green Tier is designed to:
- Increase levels of trust and account ability among agencies;
- Reduce time and money spent by agencies, facilities and organizations on tasks that do not benefit the environment and ensure low transaction costs;
- Report performance information and ambient environmental data to the public that is accurate, timely, credible, relevant and usable to interested parties;
- Allow for measuring of the systems objectives and reporting results;
- Remove disincentives;
- Provide for sustained business success; and
- Result in comprehensive reduction in pollution.
In addition, there are a host of regulatory and legislative reform efforts across the country that include:
- The formation of Decentralized Wastewater Management districts;
- Income tax deductions for upgrades to septic systems;
- Flush taxes to increase revenue for management;
- Trust indentures and other contractual instruments;
- The recognition of the need to rewrite codes, which mandate equipment and maintenance schedules that are no longer necessary because of technology advances; and
- Zoning changes to provide for density of development and open space subdivision design.
Decentralized wastewater treatment under environmental result permitting enables the practice of sustainable hydrology at the next transaction point. Additionally, it allows for the incremental installation of a modular performance-based distributed infrastructure and the contractually secure integration of economic reality and environmental protection.