A market perspective of the decentralized wastewater industry
Is there a better way to approach wastewater treatment and meet all federal and state mandates and objectives? Is decentralization of the infrastructure the most realistic way to achieve these objective?
This is the first in my three-part series of articles that start with the assumption that the answer to both questions is, “Yes.”
The EPA in a 1997 report to Congress endorsed decentralized wastewater treatment. It is now considered a permanent long-term solution to be evaluated on the same basis as traditional sewer. It has focused on introducing treatment and management to the onsite or near site disposal of wastewater. However, its real capacity to address budget challenges, nonpoint pollution and the watershed agenda remains unrealized.
We are heirs to two traditional approaches to wastewater treatment; onsite disposal—typically septic systems and central sewer.
Both approaches are concerned with the reduction of contaminants and the safe disposal of wastewater to ensure public health. Both approaches are prescriptive, institutionalized and effective within the framework for which they were created.
However, the task before us is enormous. The Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) estimates that, for the next 20 years, we need to spend an additional $12 billion a year for the expansion and replacement of wastewater collection, treatment and management with funds we neither have, nor anticipate having, just to hold water quality where it was in 1970. There is a growing consensus on the fate of water quality even as disagreements persist on the issue of cost.
The EPA acknowledges that reform centered in either of the two traditional approaches is not comprehensive enough.
Neither approach is sufficient to affordably address common public interests such as nonpoint pollution, the contamination and depletion of ground water resources, the integrity of the coastal ecology, the preservation of open space, community character and property values, or the capacity for timely development.
Consider groundwater. It is generally accepted that septic tank effluent is the third largest polluter of ground water. Some metropolitan sewer authorities report inflow and infiltration to be as high as 60% of their wastewater discharge. The pollution and depletion of ground water are a reality of the existing infrastructure.
Clearly, we need to explore the deployment of a cost effective infrastructure that has the capacity to realize the potential of integrated water resource management and the watershed agenda as well as the preservation of our communities and the natural systems on which they depend. We need alternatives to the escalating costs of infrastructure that are now pressing political and economic realities.
We think that structure is revealing itself as a unique form of decentralization that we alternately refer to as distributed sewer or distributed water resource management.
Much as main frame and personal computer technology has evolved to a distributed approach, balancing the synergies of the best technologies, flexibility and affordability to create the most effective outcome for the expended resources, so too can we achieve a distributed infrastructure for integrated waste resource management.
Decentralization as we are proposing is an adaptive new architecture. This site specific or network centric approach incorporates the following important characteristics:
- Infrastructure on demand and on a just-in-time basis;
- Performance based, adaptable, modular, scaleable and affordable;
- Arise from collaborative efforts of community and watershed interests;
- Meet environmental results discharge standards; and
- The site will define the skills, technologies, processes and organizations through which it will be managed.
Across the country, regulatory authorities—aware of their limits—are encouraging the formation of nongovernmental organizations in an effort to manage growth, provide integrated water resource management and realize the watershed agenda. If government wants insight into the value propositions that also make it affordable the private and nonprofit sectors must be responsibly engaged.
Shortly after his arrival in Washington in 2001, Tracy Mehan, former assistant EPA director for the office of water, established a new expectation for the EPA and the country. The following are excerpts from the middle of his presentation to the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee on November 30, 2001, “Building on Success—Going Beyond Regulation”:
- “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”;
- “The remaining water pollution problems are significantly more complex when compared with the problems that we have already addressed”; and
- “Complex problems require innovative solutions and entail a paradigm change.”
Mehan expanded our thinking in order to locate new watershed based responsibilities for water resource management within public policy and regulatory change. At the local level, the pressures for his “change in paradigm” are diverse and real.
When Mike Leavitt assumed the role of director of the EPA he focused on the importance of the local and built upon the urgency for "a better way."
"More. Better. Faster. Newer. That’s the tune you will hear from me," said Leavitt. "I envision a new wave of national environmental productivity from people joining together in collaborative networks for environmental teamwork."
"This is a new sociology enabled by new technology," he added.
In his remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers, Leavitt stated candidly that under the command and control model each increment of progress gets "more complex" and "more expensive."
He went on to emphasize that the economic realities of the global marketplace demand that we find efficiencies in the process of change that enable us to achieve environmental preservation without the "slow, expensive and conflict ridden" command and control approach that has characterized the EPA’s first 30 years.
Leavitt, aware of the importance of the local, has started to frame up "A Better Way" approach based on the En Libra Principles promoting:
- Incentives to comply with and exceed standards;
- Certainty for those who need to invest;
- Serving the public interests;
- Marketing incentives to speed acceptance;
- Rewarding results not programs;
- Focusing on outcomes instead of protocols;
- Establishing national standards but neighborhood solutions; and
- Adaptability served by flexibility.
There are, however, inherent resistances to Mehan’s "change in paradigm" and Leavitt’s "better way." They are not intentional but they are structural and built into the current regulatory protocols.
Jim Nemke, the retired director of the Metropolitan Madison Wisconsin Sewer Authority, spoke to these structural prohibitions to integrating the watershed approach with the current codes at the 1999 WEFTEC Conference commenting that "Watershed management plans have been abandoned because of the lack of an implementation authority beyond the point source permit program. While regulatory authorities promote movement away from a ‘command and control’ agenda, their structure remains ‘command and control’ and this restricts the ability to form consensus."
"The EPA, DNR, USDA and those concerned with state health can’t cooperate sufficiently and don’t," he added.
This command and control model is being challenged as a sufficient working principle.
Mehan suggested that the legal structure is not available in the Clean Water Act for a frontal assault on nonpoint pollution and that may be a clue that we should use different tools for nonpoint pollution than we used for point source problems.
Recognizing the institutional limits raised by Nemke, Mehan’s persistent message has been that, "The watershed approach should not be seen as merely a special initiative, targeted at just a selective set of places or involving a relatively small group of EPA or state staff. Rather, it should be a fulcrum of our restoration and protection efforts, and those of our many stakeholders, private and public. Failure to fully incorporate the watershed approach into program implementation will result in failure to achieve our environmental objectives in many of our nation’s waters."
The search for "a better way" has also been the task of professional engineers. It is they who must provide the vehicle for the changes necessary to improve water quality and supply.
Compare and contrast
In the 1998 Annual Thomas R. Camp Lecture of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, Anthony D. Cortese, ScD, president, Second Nature outlined "The Role of Engineers in Creating an Environmentally Sustainable Future" claiming "All engineers must learn a number of concepts and skills such as systems thinking; how the natural world evolved and works; and the interdependence of humans and the environment including the relationship of population, consumption, culture, social equity, health and the environment."
Cortese concluded, "Engineers will have to join forces with biologists, chemists, meteorologists, economists, planners, political scientists, ethicists and community leaders in unprecedented ways to lead society on a sustainable path."
The contrast between Nemke’s experience and Cortese’s sustainable path is classic. This distinction goes straight to the heart of whether the next infrastructure will remain fixed and rigid or become flexible and adaptive.
Will it retain the "slow, expensive and conflict ridden" command and control approach that has characterized the EPA’s first 30 years? Or will it move toward and reflect adaptive efforts to decentralize authorities into watersheds the changing nature of the biological world and the economic realities that the global marketplace demand that we design systems that continuously adapt to the unpredictable changes that characterize the relationship between human communities and the natural systems on which they depend?
The fundamental difference between environmental protection and environmental results; between command and control and command and covenant; between a comprehensive management plan and a continuous planning process; between prescription and adaptation is the greater ability to adapt to the changing relationship between human communities and the natural systems on which they depend
I dwell on this because it has been my experience that while the "living systems" aspect of the watershed agenda is understood at the planning level by the time it finds itself being executed at the local level the expectations have been overwhelmed by the command and control regulatory routines.
As recently as January 2003, The Bush Administration called for the creation of a Watershed Management Council (WMC) to explore ways to advance the watershed approach.
"We face many complex and challenging environmental problems related to the water environment. Unlike the problems of the past, today’s problems are often subtle, chronic and inter-related. Addressing 21st century problems like polluted runoff, suburban growth, drinking water security, ground water/surface water interactions, invasive species, microbes in drinking water, and atmospheric deposition demands a more modern approach to environmental protection- an approach grounded in sound science, innovative solutions and broad public involvement."
Wherever communities are confronted by development pressures or with water quality and supply issues we will find that the conditions demand that we consider "a more modern approach to environmental protection."
Distributed wastewater management in a centrally managed network is a foundation for an infrastructure for integrated water resource and watershed management. Properly structured it is an affordable and readily deployable alternative.
In the two forthcoming articles we will integrate the decentralized approach with current public interests, illustrate how most of the elements for a distributed performance based infrastructure already exists on the fringes of the current regulatory codes, suggest obstacles that need consideration and explore the cost structures and value propositions that suggest that this is an infrastructure that often has the capacity to pay for itself.