Decentralized Wastewater Treatment in Georgia: Benefits and Management Needs
Sheehan, Katherine A.
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The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. faces wastewater infrastructure funding gap of over one hundred billion dollars. Other reports show that our nation’s wastewater infrastructure is in poor condition; this is mostly attributable to a lack of investment in repairs and upgrades of conveyance systems and treatment facilities. In Georgia, the health of our wastewater facilities is one of the state’s most pressing infrastructure concerns. More centralized wastewater facility funding needs to be spent on upgrading and repairing existing plants. But because of the desire to keep communities growing, local governments and sewer authorities face constant pressure to utilize facility funds for system expansion. Sewer expansion can result in dense growth into formerly rural areas, increasing impervious surface coverage and significantly impacting stream health. The issue for Georgia, therefore, is how to provide for smart, sustainable development in growing communities while dedicating more funding towards repairing and upgrading our sometimes neglected and frequently aging centralized infrastructure. This article makes the case for greater reliance and focus on decentralized (onsite or cluster) wastewater treatment options, which the Environmental Protection Agency states are reliable wastewater infrastructure if managed properly. About 40% of Georgia residents rely on decentralized systems, which are more cost effective than centralized plants but can still treat wastewater to acceptable levels. This article suggests that we can and should rely on these systems to treat our wastewater in many areas of the state, but only if we ensure that they are properly managed and funded. It offers specific recommendations, including: repeal of the law prohibiting county boards of health from requiring septic system maintenance; development of a Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund community loan program for repairing malfunctioning or aging systems; adoption of Responsible Management Entity programs for alternative onsite systems located in critical areas; and development of local programs for management of cluster systems.