Columbia World Projects (CWP) today announced a second phase of its Transforming Wastewater Infrastructure in the United States project, which is dedicated to improving failing wastewater infrastructure in Alabama’s Black Belt region. The new phase will expand the project’s work in Alabama while also developing data and tools to bring improved wastewater systems to communities facing similar challenges nationwide.
The project’s expansion comes as the federal government is dedicating substantial funding to improving the nation’s infrastructure through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which recently became law.
The new phase of this project will guide communities and local governments on how to use this newly-available public funding to improve their wastewater infrastructure. It will work to identify the wastewater technology best suited to different communities based on factors like soil, geography and existing wastewater systems. It will also create metrics to identify under-resourced communities across the United States most urgently in need of improved wastewater systems to ensure that federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency effectively allocate public funding.
Concurrently, the new project phase will expand the wastewater treatment system at the project’s pilot site, connecting new communities in Hale County to it. It will measure the social, health and environmental benefits of this expanded system and of other system that was will be installed at a nearby sites.
“This next phase of the project will evaluate a new approach to wastewater management in rural Alabama and assess its impact from multiple dimensions,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, the director of Columbia World Projects. “If shown to be effective, this could be transformative for similar communities in this country.”
Many rural areas across the United States, such as the Black Belt region in Alabama, do not have access to sewers and centralized wastewater treatment offered through public utilities. Alternatives like septic systems do not work due to local soil characteristics and are often too costly for individual households to purchase and maintain.
The Transforming Wastewater Infrastructure in the United States project was launched in the fall of 2020 to present a solution to this long-standing challenge. The initial project phase has been supporting the development, implementation and measurement of a decentralized wastewater treatment system at a pilot site at Auburn University’s Rural Studio, in Hale County, Alabama. This pilot will serve as a model for new, cost-effective approaches to wastewater treatment for under-resourced rural communities across the country, which have suffered from systematic underinvestment for generations.
“Many communities in the country are being challenged by failing water and wastewater systems. Our goal is to bring these 'buried' conditions to light, especially for the poorest communities. Working with our partners, we aim to extend the Alabama pilot to help these communities access innovative technical and financial solutions that make sense in the 21st century,” said Upmanu Lall, a lead on the project and the director of the Columbia Water Center and the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering.
This project brings together researchers from Columbia University, University of Alabama, University of South Alabama, University of California, Irvine, University of North Carolina, in partnership with the Black Belt Community Foundation, the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management and the Rural Studio (part of Auburn University), along with Dig Deep, RCAP and industry partners.