Craig H. Lindell

21629efThis week the White House declared that climate change was no longer a risk but a reality. Essentially they changed the nature of the dialogue and with it the perception of reality from a public policy point of view

About five years ago, at the Waquoit Bay Conference Center on Cape Cod. Wastewater practitioners from the United States and Canada spoke about designing wastewater infrastructure so that it was capital forming and would pay for itself. At lunch I asked two selectmen from Cape Cod what they thought about the idea that municipal sewer often had the capacity to pay for itself.

Doubtful and probably skeptical the selectman questioned, “How?”

In response I asked three questions. Their answers revealed that in their town and in their opinion a septic system replacement often cost $30,000 to $40,000; property values would probably rise between 5% and 10% if they were moved out from under the land use and property development restrictions of the health codes and under municipal sewer services and that the average price of a home was about $350,000.

I suggested that at a given moment in time a home sale that involved the upgrading of a septic system would reduce a property’s value from $350,000 to $315.000. However, if the home was on municipal sewer in their judgment it would be worth 7.5 % more than the current estimate or $376,250. The potential difference to the property owner was by their own calculation $61,250.

Why, I asked, would you not consider offering homeowners the option of distributed sewer? 

Yes, “distributed sewer.”

At a recent Water Environment Federation committee meeting it was reported that The Hampton Roads Sanitation District that serves Southeastern Virginia including Norfolk and Newport News as well as Cincinnati, Spartanburg, San Francisco and Los Angeles are developing strategic plans to distribute their wastewater management. At the meeting the EPA acknowledged that it was stepping away from its advocacy of “decentralized wastewater treatment” and the utilities are also avoiding the language and opting for “distributed”.

These are excellent decisions. Decentralized has been discredited not because of the capacity of the technologies but because of the lack of credibility that accrues to them from an improperly regulated environment where appropriate management and reporting is neither required nor consistently supported. It is no one’s fault. It is simply the underlying nature of the institutions and their mandates.                                                                       

Municipal sewer ends both the expense and the confusion and distributed sewer has the capacity to do much more. The large utilities are beginning to realize that like distributed data processing, distributed sewer allows us to place processing power, where it is needed on a just in time basis and in a centrally managed network. The critical language here is “just in time.”Once you make possible the alignment of the delivery of infrastructure with demand, developers can build sewers like they build roads and other utilities under tax exempt financing and give it to the community. For existing homes betterments coupled with the sewer ordinances can provide the same alignment. Fairhaven used betterments to partially fund modular or distributed sewer on West Island.

Both developer and betterment funded approaches to infrastructure are forms of public private partnerships that are available under current law. They cost the municipality and the state nothing- accept the creation of the governing capacity to use them.

They also eliminate the infrastructure budget deficit gaps that are the product of front end loading the financial and political benefits and back end loading the debt on the communities who took advantage of the program. In 2002 as we were approaching the end of the infrastructure cycle that began in the recession in the early 1970’s, 42% of wastewater utilities in the United States were operating on deficit budgets and surface water quality was beginning to decline.

This is not an attempt to be contentious. This is simply to suggest that indecision has its own set of unintended consequences and that changing the nature of the dialogue from TMDL compliance to property values and capital and job formation might change the nature of the outcome.

Author: Craig Lindell    508-985-9050 ext 112

See Attached Case Study (PDF)
Stow, MA, Meeting House Stow Meeting House_Performance Snapshot

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