Decentralized Wastewater Treatment: Community Building and the Watershed Agenda

April 30, 2002

About the author: Craig Lindell is a founder and president of Aquapoint, a New Bedford, Mass.-based company that designs and builds wastewater treatment solutions for small and decentralized wastewater management systems. He serves on Water Environment Federation’s Small Communities Committee and on the board of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Decentralized wastewater treatment presents us with a range of possibilities for community preservation and watershed management. However, these possibilities remain obscured by the limitations of the onsite codes and unforeseen by municipal wastewater authorities unaware of decentralization or reluctant to explore its range and potential.

From policy meetings in Washington to local communities under pressure to allow development while maintaining water quality and the quality of life, we are seeing indications of what Assistant EPA Director G. Tracy Mehan calls a “change in paradigm.” This change is revealing a distributed, performance-based infrastructure for wastewater management that has the capacity to pay for itself. It also may provide the foundation for an “institutional framework to support watershed management.”

If we consider decentralized wastewater treatment in the form of a distributed sewer, its potential begins to emerge. Basically, the system works like this: Small, individual or cluster type wastewater facilities are maintained by a local utility. Therefore, the local utility provides wastewater treatment services to residents (i.e., it distributes sewer service) but does not use a traditional, centralized wastewater treatment plant to serve a region (i.e., it uses decentralized wastewater treatment options).

New Community

“New Community” is located in the Southeastern United States. Its process of discovery and reform are near completion. Since the process of reform is fragile, it must remain anonymous until finished.

New Community is faced with significant development pressure, difficult soils and the need to stimulate local economic development. Several years ago it concluded that it could not afford nor would it receive subsidies for a conventional centralized sewer.

In order to prepare for the fact that it would have to rely on onsite wastewater treatment and disposal, New Community planners and health officials concluded that they should increase lot sizes from 1?2 acre to 1 acre to provide for an additional disposal field in the event of failure. The doubling of lot size would cut the value of real estate in half. The alternative was to allow the 1?2-acre zoning if advanced treatment systems were used.

In discussions with Community officials, health authorities, planners and developers, environmental interest groups and citizens, the following scenario was presented.

               The community could double the lot size to an acre to provide for an extra disposal field.

               Developers could retain the current lot size if they provided additional treatment.

               Wastewater treatment could be decentralized with on-lot or clustered systems.

This appeared to be the best solution and the one that fit best under the health code. However, New Community was not eager to use onsite aerobic treatment systems. Ultimately, New Community decided to look at providing a distributed municipal sewer system. Their reasoning was as follows.

               There are no major obstacles to more than one collection or treatment system in a sewer district.

               Lot size would not be an issue because under the sewer code the health codes would not apply.

               If the community provided municipal infrastructure, land values would probably increase.

               Therefore, the community had the potential to create additional house lots and increases in property value for the developers.

               In exchange, the community could secure a 50 percent open space design from the developer and use that open space for storm water and wastewater management.

               The community would require that the developer construct the wastewater disposal system to meet watershed discharge standards.

Essentially, the developer would build the infrastructure to meet watershed quality discharge standards and transfer it to the Community. Planners anticipated that property serviced by municipal infrastructure would increase enough in value to offset the cost of building it.

In fact, as New Community explored the potential of distributed sewer it became apparent that it could be an infrastructure with the capacity to pay for itself. Properly structured,

               Growth would pay for the infrastructure that supports it;

               Rapid returns on investment would offset the costs to commercial sites through disposal field preservation minimizing business interruption; and

               Appreciation in property values generally associated with municipal infrastructure would offset some of the costs of remediation.

New Community’s rezoning is expected to be completed this spring. Developers have open space subdivision designs ready for submittal under the new zoning codes. The process has taken about two years. Its novelty and its effort to incorporate the principles of community preservation, watershed standard and value-based procurement are unprecedented.

This transformation is primarily a process of changing relationships and releasing value. It has little, if anything, to do with what can be bought with government funding. Its success depends on the process of public participation and of respecting and trying to address the interests of all members of the community.

When New Community started to discuss decentralized wastewater treatment, some senior Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials were unfamiliar with the concept. Similarly, state legislative efforts to secure 20 percent open space for development had failed to pass. Many communities as well as their professional engineers are not yet familiar with the potential or the process for the implementation of distributed sewer.


Distributed sewer offers communities the opportunity to assert their authority in the service of their citizens’ wealth and well being. It is a pragmatic and democratic response to the real wastewater issues. It is active citizenship in pursuit of a framework to increase water quality and supply, to preserve the quality of natural systems and recreational resources, to enhance property values and provide for economic development, community preservation and the quality of life.

“Distributed sewer” is so immediately available and the risks involved in testing its efficacy so minimal that those communities who neglect exploring its potential will have to ask themselves if they passed on an extraordinary opportunity.

Some communities are beginning to understand this. They understand that they must create it and that their citizens will pay for it. They also understand that if it is to be successful it must be done relatively quickly in order to preempt the ever increasing percentage of new construction (currently between 40–50 percent nationally) that is being built with septic systems.

A Change in Paradigm

New Community is an indicator of a change in paradigm. Consider the pervasiveness of nonpoint pollution, the acknowledged economic limitations of the State Revolving Funds (SRF), the inherent complexity of the issues and the Clean Water Action Plan’s search for an “institutional framework to support watershed management.” They are indicators that water quality and supply and the preservation of the natural systems on which human communities depend are beyond the response capacities of the two traditional approaches to wastewater treatment.

Obstacles to this change are onsite code limitations and the lack of knowledge by water and wastewater professionals to the potential benefits of a distributed infrastructure for watershed management.

Currently, the voices of change are being sounded in the wastewater industry.

At its 2001 annual conference, the National Association of Local Boards of Health (NALBOH) recognized that the Environmental Health Codes are an “obstacle to the watershed agenda.” (Ted Pratt, Congressional Liaison, NALBOH)

In Mehan’s comments to the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, “Building on Success – Going Beyond Regulation,”1 he said,

               “Times have changed dramatically since the existing regulatory framework was put in place.”

               “Point source controls alone are not capable of achieving or maintaining ambient environmental standards.”

               “The technological and economic limitations of our existing regulatory framework are at hand.”

               “The remaining water pollution problems are significantly more complex.”

               “Complex problems require innovative solutions and entail a change in paradigm.”

These ideas also are finding a political voice. Georgia Governor Barnes, as reported in the Atlanta Constitution on April 3, 2000 said,

               “Someone has to decide how to build more infrastructure to handle the fast growing counties…that are starving for it.”

               “But addressing water quality issues in already developed parts of the region….also is an imperative.”

The industry also has had its first hints that the future holds a dramatic change in perspective. Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior, stated in his 2001 WEFTEC keynote address, “You are in the water supply industry, and you are not only water supply managers, but you are increasingly going to be watershed managers.”

Creating Change

At the 2002 Conference of the Pennsylvania Association of Townships, John Borland of the Pennsylvania DEP told a planning seminar, “You must create the change you expect to see in your community.”

Innovation, even innovation going beyond regulation, is imperative at the highest policy levels. At the regulatory level, the command and control structure restricts and often prohibits the innovation that many regulators conceptually endorse. However, it is at the community and watershed levels, where it is increasingly difficult to meet environmental standards, that innovation must be fought for, practiced and realized.

In a way, regulatory institutions are struggling with credibility because they are failing the tests of locality. Communities and watersheds require a framework for management that is diverse in its approach, performance based in design, affordable, adaptable and responsive. Essentially, Mehan’s “change in paradigm” requires that our institutions become more dynamic and our regulatory requirements become more site specific like the natural systems they seek to sustain.

Decentralized wastewater treatment, under the structure of the sewer codes, has the capacity to meet these expectations if we release it from the traditions and allow it to address what Mehan insists are our “responsibilities of stewardship.”

Decentralized wastewater treatment is not simply an extension of the onsite approach or an alternative to centralized sewer. It anticipates a new ethos in which wastewater is no longer simply an issue of public health but one of water resource management. It is the capacity to place wastewater treatment in the service of the watershed agenda and to manage wastewater as both a pollutant and resource.

Consider a network of treatment systems strategically placed to reduce specific limiting pollutants and to assist the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the natural system into which they discharge. Designing and managing these systems can be a fraction of the cost of traditional sewer.

Consider wastewater a resource as well as a pollutant. Distribute this capacity to treat, manage and reuse wastewater under the sewer codes with consistency and economy throughout a watershed, and you can begin to get a sense for the potential of a distributed infrastructure.

Our sense of urgency is not unique. Scan the literature on EPA and state regulatory websites and you cannot miss the unprecedented level of concern for water quality and supply or the underlying recognition that reform is at once both necessary and elusive.

An Obstacle Worth Considering

Reform is elusive, in part, because the barriers to reciprocity, trust and collaboration are formidable.

For example, contrast New Community with the past experience of the Metropolitan Madison Wisconsin Sewer Authority. Speaking at the 1999 Water Environment Federation Small Communities Committee Conference, Jim Nemke, the now retired director of the authority,  said,

               “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.”

Nemke is clear. The assumption that the barriers to a distributed infrastructure are technological or economic is a distraction from the more fundamental issue, if not patently false. Essentially, New Community has figured this out.

Ed Corriveau of the Pennsylvania DEP also has figured it out. “We now know new partnerships among industry, regulators and local decision-makers must emerge relatively quickly or the old solutions will threaten water quality, property values and economic development, community preservation and the watershed agenda.”

It is mismatched, missing and inappropriately scaled institutions and their limited mandates that frustrate the collaboration that is so essential to reform.

Indications of the Next Infrastructure

Besides New Community, other authorities are in the process of building a new wastewater infrastructure. For example, in Northern Alabama a rural county initiated legislative reform to set the stage for a distributed infrastructure for wastewater management. Also in Alabama, a metropolitan area will take approximately 100,000 gallons off its central sewer system, treat the wastewater and reuse it to subsurface irrigate a park.

Taking stress off central systems and water reuse may be only the start of a new agenda. In its FY 2002 Strategic Plan, the EPA’s Municipal Support Division concluded: “If current levels of treatment are not increased, by 2016 wastewater treatment plants will discharge about as much Biochemical Oxygen demanding pollution as they did in 1972, before the nation adopted the landmark secondary treatment standard.”

In Massachusetts, watershed interests are exploring the roles they might play and the responsibilities they might assume to eliminate the loading of nutrients to drinking water aquifers and coastal estuaries. The irony they confront is that one primary source of nutrients is 1995 code compliant septic systems.

In Pennsylvania they are experimenting with affordable permits. In other states there is discussion of income tax deductions and property tax abatements to promote clustering and management. There also is a discussion of the use of State Revolving Fund money to provide government loan guarantees in order to leverage the volume of funds available.

Wisconsin’s “Green Tier” and Massachusetts’ “Environmental Results” programs are contractual alternatives to the standard permitting process that offer flexibility and incentives in exchange for the pledge to exceed code compliant discharge standards.

These are not projects for public health purposes. They are novel approaches that may prove to be extraordinarily consequential. They are indicator projects for the next infrastructure.


Almost five years ago, Larry Selzer of the Conservation Fund and the National Forum for Nonpoint Source Pollution independently anticipated the origins of a “watershed framework for conservation.”

“First, this framework will be based on collaboration, not confrontation. Second it will fully integrate economic reality into environmental protection. Third, I believe it will be led by the private sector and the non-profit community, not by government. Fourth, it will be technology-driven. And lastly, I believe it will be community based.”2

Selzer’s insight is profound. To ignore it is folly. The next infrastructure will be community, county or watershed based. Moreover, we are convinced that creative and responsible proposals at this level will be encouraged and supported by the regulatory community.

It is time for legislatures across the country to take the time to understand their role in creating the potential for a framework to support watershed management. As we have suggested, neglect is not benign or without consequences. Delay, if we take men like Bruce Babbitt and Tracy Mehan seriously, may be an ethical breach of responsibilities.

Communities need legislative and regulatory cooperation and reform to support their initiatives. The Clean Water Action Plan is clear. “Engaging the full range of public and private interests in the transition to the watershed approach will require the development of an institutional framework to support watershed management.”

About the Author

Craig Lindell

Sponsored Recommendations

Get Utility Project Solutions

June 13, 2024
Lightweight, durable fiberglass conduit provides engineering benefits, performance and drives savings for successful utility project outcomes.

Energy Efficient System Design for WWTPs

May 24, 2024
System splitting with adaptive control reduces electrical, maintenance, and initial investment costs.

Meeting the Demands of Wastewater Treatment Plants

May 24, 2024
KAESER understands the important requirements wastewater treatment plant designers and operators consider when evaluating and selecting blowers and compressed air equipment. In...

Modernize OT Cybersecurity to Mitigate Risk

April 25, 2024
Rockwell Automation supports industry-leading Consumer Packaged Goods company, Church & Dwight, along their industrial cybersecurity journey.