June 28, 2007

Treating rural wastewater is a daunting task

  • Most rural communities don’t have the funds or infrastructure to build effective wastewater treatment systems.
    Special to the Journal



    In 1972 when Public Law 92-500 was passed nobody was thinking too much about rural communities. The targets were municipal discharges to lakes, rivers and bays that threatened the water supplies of downstream communities or wrecked the water quality of marine embayments.

    The law’s goal of “swimmable/fishable waters of the nation” became technically defined as discharges with less than 30 parts per million biochemical oxygen demand and 30 ppm suspended solids. These goals were achievable in American cities and towns where treatment facilities existed along with well-developed infrastructure systems of pipes and pumps and, perhaps most importantly, tax bases.

    The law and the enormous federal and state grant programs that accompanied it have for the most part worked. Despite population increases and industrial growth, the waters of the nation are cleaner — more than 30 years of effort have made a real difference.

    Photos courtesy of ESA Adolfson
    Mason County is partnering with the Skokomish Tribe and Mason County PUD No. 1 to find affordable wastewater treatment options that protect Hood Canal’s water quality.

    Now attention is focused on rural areas with low urban or suburban population densities, and we are concerned about the effects of nutrients, specifically nitrogen in marine waters and phosphorus in fresh waters.

    The big discharges are largely managed and under control, but we now know that the comparatively small quantities of nutrients coming from rural centers and small towns can tip the balance in sensitive receiving waters and create a higher frequency of serious dissolved oxygen and other water quality problems. These communities, however, have little or no wastewater infrastructure and very few residents per mile of pipeline.

    A double whammy

    Low densities mean limited ability to raise capital, and the nutrient problems are very expensive to control. This double whammy is beating up public jurisdictions like those around Hood Canal that need to act quickly to save a priceless resource.

    Homes or stream banks may contaminate adjacent streams with bacteria and nutrients.

    The state and the Environmental Protection Agency understand the problem and are working hard to come to the rescue. However, the days of big federal grants are gone and the 35 years of apparatus and regulation that were built to serve primarily city needs aren’t set up for rural problems. The administrative and regulatory systems in place aren’t tuned to the problems facing small communities. It’s not easy trying to be a green rural community.

    Along Hood Canal, a fjord that cuts 60 miles into the edge of the Olympic Mountains, communities are grappling with the challenges of protecting water quality within this unique water body. For example, Mason County and its partners the Skokomish Tribe and Mason County PUD No. 1 are looking for wastewater treatment options that protect Hood Canal water quality, comply with the state’s Growth Management Act, and don’t break the financial backs of residents and small businesses.

    Hoodsport, the Skokomish Reservation area known as Potlatch, and the most densely populated portion of the reservation all rely on septic systems. These systems do not adequately control nitrogen in the discharge water that runs below ground into Hood Canal, and nitrogen has been shown to be a significant contributor to low dissolved oxygen problems that plague Hood Canal.

    Federal and state grant money was made available several years ago, but using it was a problem. The money, offered under the old city-oriented approaches, is generally intended for final design or construction. The first step, however, is planning, which is more complex than it used to be.

    GMA discourages rural sewers

    Houses built near the shoreline may contribute nutrients to the receiving water through septic discharges.

    The state’s Growth Management Act properly identifies sewers as an “urban” service that is not to be deployed in a rural setting. Sewers enable higher density development. How could that be good in an area planned for rural uses? On the other hand, without sewers and advanced wastewater treatment systems that are beyond the capabilities of most homeowners, managing nitrogen is almost impossible.

    The Growth Management Act also has provisions for “rural activity centers” and “limited areas of more intense rural development.” These designations allow urban services like sewering in more densely populated but unincorporated rural areas, provided that these services do not enable additional growth in those locations. Consequently, the worthy objectives of growth management and the generally urban orientation of clean water regulation and financing tend to collide.

    It takes planning for wastewater improvements, but there is little or no money for that sort of activity and the areas that need the attention seldom have government capacity in place to do the work.

    Hoodsport, Potlatch and the central area of the Skokomish Reservation have joined forces to find financing and advance clean-water efforts on the west side of Hood Canal. State and federal agencies have rallied to the cause and helped make the city-oriented clean water government systems work. Preliminary planning has been funded from a variety of resources so that the earlier funds set aside for design and construction can finally be accessed.

    The waiting funds total about $7 million, but the current estimate to take care of all three communities exceeds $19 million. Even with impossibly high monthly rates there is no way these communities can raise the necessary capital, so they are collectively seeking financial assistance.

    “Swimmable and fishable” is now coming to rural America as we learn more about how even small quantities of human-caused pollution can, under some circumstances, have serious environmental impact. The quest for clean water is opening a new chapter as rural areas struggle to do the right thing. Fortunately, this happens at the same time wastewater treatment systems are becoming decentralized and small plants are becoming reliable and economical.

    Mike Sharar, owner of Mike Sharar Consulting, served as executive director of the LOTT Alliance regional wastewater utility for 15 years until 2002. He is part of the team developing a wastewater management plan for Hood Canal. Molly Adolfson is a vice president of ESA Adolfson in Seattle. She has more than 25 years of experience in environmental impact analysis, water quality, natural resource evaluation and management.

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