Distributed Systems Provide Alternative to Traditional Wastewater Networks

In the Clean Water Action Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged the need for "an institutional framework to support watershed management."

By Craig Lindell

In the Clean Water Action Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged the need for "an institutional framework to support watershed management." It is imperative that we think locally and strategically about land use, quality of life and the preservation of natural and recreational resources.

Water, wastewater and resource protection are so intricately related to land use, zoning, property rights and economic development that reform is often abandoned because of the complexity of the issues. Persistence is essential, because the issues are local and the solutions will be local.

Where do we look for solutions? Not the federal government! EPA has made it clear that there is no new funding available to meet the trillion-dollar problem of repairing and replacing our existing water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years, not to mention the need for building new infrastructure to accommodate growth.

We need to look locally at alternative solutions if we are to continue to grow, preserve the watersheds and natural systems on which human communities depend and find the value propositions that promise to make it affordable. One such solution would be a form of decentralized wastewater treatment — referred to as "distributed sewer."

Here is how it would work.

Lot size is a function of the environmental health codes. There is no lot size requirement under the municipal sewer codes. Property on municipal sewer lines generally increases in value. Therefore, providing density and distributed sewer has the potential to create value.

In exchange for the right to build, developers would be required to provide a certain percentage of open space in subdivision design. The open space could contribute to property values through landscape design.

The open space would be used for treated wastewater disposal and storm water management. The developer would build the wastewater infrastructure that meets watershed discharge standards and give the infrastructure to the community. That way, the watershed is protected, community preservation issues are addressed, and the system essentially pays for itself.

This approach has little if anything to do with what can be bought with government funding. It has to do with the creative use of existing legislation and codes, the constructive reform of local zoning ordinances and the use of appropriately scaled technologies.

If you doubt the conclusions that such a network of sewers is feasible, consider the wastewater treatment facility on West Island in Fairhaven, MA. Despite the code restrictions under which it operates, it is a precedent for a distributed sewer in that region.

The message is clear. We must use the codes to serve the values of community preservation. We will build the next infrastructure for water management based on local decisions and local values. The local consumer will pay for it. To be sustainable, it must be affordable. Technologies will make it achievable at a fraction of the cost of conventional sewer. Property value appreciation and rapid returns on investment will offset much of the costs.

Most importantly, because the distributed sewer system approach is modular, it can start in most communities immediately. Delay is now a choice. It is no longer inevitable.

More is needed, perhaps in the form of legislation that allows a deduction in our income taxes (see Massachusetts) for upgrades in sewer districts that achieve community preservation principles and watershed discharge standards.

The future of our communities resides with us. We must be the origin of the change we expect to see. Demonstrate a responsible path to reform and our political representatives, to whom we now look for leadership, will respond.

About the author: Craig Lindell is a member of the WWEMA Board of Directors and is president of Aquapoint, a wastewater treatment company focused on distributed performance-based wastewater management systems.

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