This project will pilot a new approach to wastewater treatment in rural Alabama and demonstrate that improved wastewater treatment technologies and management models can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for rural communities in the United States and around the world.
In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ grade for its national wastewater infrastructure. Across the country, wastewater and sanitation systems are failing, contaminating water supplies, causing parasitic infections and harming ecosystems. These challenges are particularly acute in low-income rural areas such as the Black Belt region of Alabama, where many households do not have access to the sewers and centralized wastewater treatment offered in most U.S. urban areas through public utilities. Alternatives like septic tanks are often incompatible with local soil and are frequently too costly for low-income households to install or maintain. Many instead opt for what is locally known as a “straight pipe” discharge – sending untreated wastewater from toilets to a nearby pit, ditch, stream or ground surface.
This project aims to provide alternative wastewater treatment solutions for underserved, low-income communities that can be implemented in a manner that is equitable, technically feasible and financially sustainable. At select pilot sites, the project will install and test new wastewater treatment systems that are clustered and decentralized, connecting neighboring homes or businesses in a single system that collects, treats and re-uses water, reducing the cost of upkeep. Data on how to adopt and manage such treatment systems will be collected and published on an open-source platform, so that governments and rural communities worldwide that are affected by this problem can benefit from what is learned. The project will also seek to provide further evidence of the negative health impacts of using “straight pipe” discharge.
The project includes a diverse set of collaborators including communities in the Black Belt region of Alabama; the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management; the University of Alabama; the University of California, Irvine; the University of North Carolina; the University of South Alabama; and state and federal officials.
This project aims to provide immediate benefits to households at its pilot sites, including demonstrable improvements in public health and a reduction in toxic discharges to the environment. It will also provide a model for transitioning to a more resilient and sustainable wastewater infrastructure, which could be deployed throughout Alabama, the United States and the world. Ultimately, this project endeavors to provide historically disenfranchised communities access to a basic resource: safely treated wastewater.
- 90%Percentage of septic systems in the Black Belt that are functioning poorly or failing due to unsuitable soil conditions (Alabama Water Resources Research Institute)
Maura AllaireUniversity of California, IrvineRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Maura Allaire is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Irvine. With expertise in water resource economics, her research focuses on the development of improved strategies...
Joe BrownUniversity of North CarolinaRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. Brown is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering who focuses on detection methods for pathogens and pathogen indicators in the environment, water and sanitation...
Mark ElliottUniversity of AlabamaRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. Elliott is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities of water...
Upmanu LallColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. Lall is the Director of the Columbia Water Center and the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, and the Chair of the Dept. of Earth & Environmental Engineering at...
JoAnn Kamuf WardColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Ms. Ward is the Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and a supervisor in the Law School's Human Rights Clinic.
Kevin WhiteUniversity of South AlabamaRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. White is Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil, Coastal and Environmental Engineering with many years of experience studying onsite and small-community wastewater management/technology...
Inga WinklerColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. Inga Winkler is a lecturer in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research addresses socio-economic rights, development, and gender justice with...
Most cities and urban areas in the United States are served by centralized wastewater treatment systems with sewers for waste collection, offered through a public utility system. However, nearly 25% of the U.S. population is served by on-site, decentralized systems such as septic tanks. While such systems can reduce wastewater impacts if well designed and maintained, they are often implicated in the contamination of soils, surface and ground water with disease-causing pathogens and nitrates, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some areas unserved by centralized wastewater treatment facilities also lack access to septic tanks and other systems that treat wastewater on-site, due largely to household economic constraints (these systems cost between $3,000 to $30,000 per home) and unsuitable soil conditions.
In the Black Belt region of Central Alabama, wastewater challenges are acute, as significant amounts of raw sewage and pathogens are being discharged onto the ground and into local watersheds because there are no public sewers or functional septic systems. This has serious impacts on the natural environment and the health of individuals and communities, including troubling evidence of intestinal worm infections.
Effective, single-home, wastewater management systems (often septic tank systems) have a significant first cost and no institutional management, which results in costly service and repairs, creating a significant financial burden for low-income, rural households. To address these barriers, leaders in industry, the EPA and academia agree that the future of wastewater services in underserved rural areas requires innovative approaches.
Clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment – in which collection, treatment, and disposal or reuse take place near the wastewater source – offers a potential solution for many underserved communities. New technologies for monitoring, treatment, communication and remote control have the potential to address wastewater challenges at different spatial scales and population densities, and under different climate and water availability and quality levels. All of this could dramatically reduce the cost of wastewater infrastructure.
This project aims to demonstrate the applicability and feasibility of this new, clustered, decentralized technology; to measure how such solutions can improve the health of surrounding residents; and to offer a path for other communities facing similar challenges to improve wastewater treatment and the environmental, economic and health conditions in their communities.
This project is a collaborative effort between researchers and faculty from universities in Alabama, California, North Carolina and New York; local, state and federal officials; community representatives; and the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management. Over a five-year period the team will:
- Investigate and quantify a range of negative health, environmental and economic impacts of wastewater systems failures in the region, expanding on current CDC-funded research.
- Design and pilot a clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment system based on new technology in up to 15 sites, affecting hundreds of households.
- Demonstrate that a clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment system can significantly reduce the sanitation-related health and environmental burdens at the pilot sites, and provide a cost-effective and manageable solution for communities.
- Develop new models and analytical tools to enable similar communities and other stakeholders to identify appropriate solutions for wastewater treatment depending on the site attributes.
- Produce a best-practice guide for adopting new financial, management and operational models for wastewater treatment.
In Partnership With
- Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater Management
- Rural Studio, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University
- University of Alabama
- University of California, Irvine
- University of North Carolina
- University of South Alabama