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U.S. EPA report on decentralized wastewater systems.

U.S. EPA has reported to Congress that decentralized wastewater systems are cost-effective and can help meet public health and water quality goals in rural areas and small communities.

The document, Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems, was released after an inquiry from the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives. The House committee, stressing that only limited federal funds are available to help finance wastewater infrastructure projects, requested that U.S. EPA report on the use of alternatives to conventional centralized wastewater systems.

Decentralized Systems Can Offer Savings

"Decentralized on-site and cluster wastewater systems can be the most cost-effective option in areas where developing or extending centralized treatment is too expensive," the report states. Such areas include rural areas and hilly terrain.

In small communities and fringe communities, however, the most cost-effective option depends on a number of factors - population size and density, topography, distance to an existing centralized system, and local performance requirements.

Barriers to Implementation

Five barriers to implementing decentralized systems are outlined in the report, along with possible ways to overcome them.

Lack of Knowledge and Public Misperception

Many homeowners and developers think that houses with centralized systems will carry higher property values and have greater acceptance, even if centralized systems are far more costly. Also, many regulators and engineers are not comfortable with decentralized systems. Therefore, the report proposes that professional training and certification include decentralized systems, and that educational materials be distributed to homeowners.

Legislative and Regulatory Constraints

State laws usually divide oversight of centralized and decentralized systems between two or more agencies. Confusion about and less emphasis on decentralized systems can result. Many state and local governments have codes for decentralized systems that allow only conventional septic systems, or they have complicated processes for approving alternative on-site systems. The report proposes that states consider consolidating all legal authority for centralized and decentralized systems under one state agency, and that state and local regulatory codes for decentralized systems be revised.

Lack of Management Programs

Few communities have developed the organizational structure necessary to effectively manage decentralized systems. The report proposes that programs be developed to ensure that systems are sited, designed, installed, operated, and maintained properly.

Liability and Engineering Fees

Homeowners and developers are often unwilling to accept the liability associated with unfamiliar treatment systems. Engineering fees based on a percentage of project cost give little incentive to design low-cost systems. The report proposes that liability be addressed in management plans that prevent failures and develop mechanisms to cover failures. Engineering fees for decentralized projects should not be based on project costs.

Financial Barriers

The major federal funding programs for wastewater treatment facilities generally do not assist privately owned systems. The report proposes that community officials be informed of funding programs that do assist private systems.

Addressing Needs

U.S. EPA offers funding for decentralized systems through its Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) Program and Hardship Grants Program for Rural Communities. Also, U.S. EPA is Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service to better coordinate wastewater-related funding between the two agencies so that the funding process will be less burdensome for local officials. U.S. EPA's outreach and education efforts related to decentralized technologies include the National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC) and its sister organization, the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities.

Further Information

For a copy of the report, contact NSFC at (800) 624-8301 or (304) 293-4191 and request Item #WWBKGN93. The report costs $13.10 plus shipping and handling. U.S. EPA also provides information on the Internet about decentralized systems. See the entries in the Environmental Health-'Net section below. (Source: Small Flows, Summer 1997).
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Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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