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2008: "Water To Waste." education publication.

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2008: "Water To Waste." education publication - Return To Main Index

Water To Waste Section Ten: The Case For Community Management

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Bring It All Back Home
By Ted J. Rulseh February 2008

Maybe it was a case of the pendulum swinging too far.
Historically speaking, sanitary sewers were the salvation of health in cities. Sewers helped put a stop to all manner of horrific and readily preventable diseases that had been spread by human waste.

But somewhere along the line, it became dogma that sewers were always better than any alternative. Maybe it was years of open latrines and outhouses. Maybe it was more years of seeing the harm septic systems did when built where they didn’t belong.

In my days as a journalist I covered many commission meetings where debate over new subdivisions centered on whether the site in question was within cost-effective reach of the big pipe. Septic systems were at best temporary. Sewers were always preferable.

That was before society began to appreciate what it costs to maintain and repair all those pipes buried all those years ago, and what it still costs to build new pipes and new wastewater treatment capacity. It was also before scientists and regulatory officials figured out which types of soils could support septic systems and which could not.

It was also before inventors figured out essentially how to take the processes that work in big municipal treatment plants and translate them into small systems that can cost-effectively serve individual homes and small cluster communities.

So there we have it. Septic systems still face a stigma from years of bad experiences with primitive treatment technology (and, to be fair, less than ideal system installations). Yet now, no less than the U.S. EPA is on record saying that onsite systems deserve to be a permanent part of the national wastewater treatment infrastructure.

Consensus now has it that under certain conditions, onsite systems are better than the big pipe. Under what conditions? Well, when systems are designed, installed and maintained properly. And when technology is applied that fits the needs of the site. Thanks to the vast range of technologies available, that is now possible almost regardless of site and soil conditions.

Onsite systems have the added benefit — more appreciated in these times of regional water scarcity — of keeping water within the same watershed or sub-watershed, instead of simply sending it downstream by way of a treatment plant outfall.

Do we appreciate what this means in terms of opportunity to do good for the environment, good for taxpayers’ pocketbooks, and good for our own businesses? If not, we should.

Think of it. Perhaps a majority of homes being built today are outside the existing reach of municipal sewers. If indeed onsite systems are as effective as centralized treatment, then the big pipe doesn’t have to be extended to those areas.

One of the main things standing in the way of that opportunity is the old stigma. Fundamentally, that is what needs to be broken down before onsite systems can take their rightful place among treatment alternatives.

If the industry and its members are seen as less than credible, then onsite systems and technologies will continue to be suspect. The way to build credibility in the long run is quite simply to build system after system after system that does its job.

The long view: Every single thing that undermines public faith in onsite systems undermines the big opportunity for the industry. The adage is true: It takes years to build a good reputation, and only 15 minutes to destroy it.
True professionals do things like taking part in discussions about rules and regulations, taking regular training and providing it to employees, following sound design and installation practices every time, learning and applying new technologies, serving as an education resource for customers and — perhaps most difficult — having zero tolerance for those whose bad behavior pulls the industry down. With all this in place this is a highly promising time for the onsite treatment industry.Ted J. Rulseh is Editor of Onsite Installer, one of the fine sanitation publications available at www.colepublishing.com. This material is extracted from the full article which appeared in the May 2008 issue of Onsite Installer magazine,
published by COLE Publishing Inc.,www.onsiteinstaller.com
It is reprinted by permission.

Community Options For Individual Wastewater Systems in Benzonia & Lake Townships, Benzie County, Michigan

Michigan’s water rich, northwest region has some of the most scenic and sought after real estate. National Wildlife Federation & Center for Environment and Population "U.S. State Reports on Population and the Environment: Michigan" details that what was once a three or four week summer destination is now a year round second home location. Benzie County is the second fastest growing in the state. Benzonia and Lake Townships, with gorgeous Crystal and Platte Lakes face a wastewater management and community preservation challenge.

Nearly 90% of the properties in this district are served by on-site systems, one of the highest on-site system percentages in the state. In addition, over 350 holding tank systems serve residences that are on sites that do not meet minimum requirements for on-site septics. Beginning in 2006, Onsite Wastewater worked with Benzonia and Lake Townships to create a community driven,pro-active, voluntary regulation and oversight project based on cost effectiveness, sustainability and comprehensive land use planning based on the boundaries drawn by nature not politics. Faced with escalating pump out fees for holding tanks,but with a strong desire to maintain their lakefront homes. property owners gladly bought into a voluntary system replacement plan.

A close look at a satellite image of Benzie county is a graphic reality check of the geographic challenges of trying to construct a central municipal sewer around Crystal and Platte Lakes. As such a proposal had already been the source of great community conflict, and it was seen as cost prohibitive, this area is a prime candidate for a series of smaller community ‘cluster’ type treatment areas. With some properties now able to take advantage of new technology and changes in the Benzie Sanitary Code, almost 200 residents expressed an interest in moving forward.
At the suggestion of State MDEQ - Benzonia and Lake Townships applied for a Strategic Water Quality Initiative Planning Grant.
(Click Here To See the Project Plan)

Community information meetings were held. Dr. Richard Otis, Onsite Wastewater’s Engineering Technical Consultant worked with both Townships and Benzie County Planning to create a comprehensive GIS mapping of soils, slopes, properties and system options.

After a Public Hearing, in 2007, both Townships chose to move forward with an application for funding to provide replacement options for many of the worst affected property owners on Crystal and Platte Lakes. Under the Strategic Water Quality initiative Fund, financed via the Clean Michigan Initiative Bond Proposal passed in 2003, it was stated that an ultra low rate loan would be available to property owners as a pass through via the InterLocal Joint Township Agreement.

A major set back came when state regulators declined to consider funding that part of the application which would have provided a Responsible Management structure to finance small neighborhood ‘cluster’ systems. For many holding tank owners this left them with no viable alternatives.

Firmly in compliance with USEPA’s Voluntary Models and Guidelines for Responsible Management Entities, Benzonia and Lake Township’s Project went forward creating a list of qualified preferred providers for the remaining single family property owners and doing site soils evaluations to determine the system choices.

However, at the point of consulting with the Township attorney, in readiness for creating loan and mandatory maintenance contracts, it was discovered that SWQIF legislation is missing the required legal language to permit any Township to access these funds to pass through to private citizens. The Project remains in limbo. Onsite Wastewater is actively seeking an alternate, private funding source. (2010 Update: DEQ informed Benzonia Township that, becuase they had not submitted an approved SWQIF or SRF Plan, legal steps would begin to force repayment of the S2 Planning Grant. A legal challenge in response was based on the premise that it was DEQ's responsibility to inform Project Planners that funding was not legally permissible. At this time a community cluster system has been submitted for SRF funding to serve a small group of afected residents on Platte Lake. See http://www.bldhd.org to read the new Project Plan.)

Water To Waste Section Two: Water / Energy Efficiency information and EPA WaterSense Program

Water To Waste Section Three: The inter-relationship between water use, wastewater, the water cycle and wastewater systems.

Water To Waste Section Four: Common sense information about how your wastewater system works

Water To Waste Section Five: Installation, siting, operation and maintenance.

Water To Waste Section Six And Seven: The many amazing things that end up in the waste stream and why we should be careful and concerned.

Water To Waste Section Eight and Nine: The state of our region - an attempt to survey wastewater systems.

Water To Waste Section Eleven: Small community options, choices and solutions

Water To Waste Section Twelve: Understanding northwest Michigan geography and geology and how this relates to wastewater.

Water To Waste Section Thirteen: Information about different types of wastewater systems and case studies.

Water To Waste Section Fourteen: A terrible waste to waste - when there's money to be made and saved by innovation.

Water To Waste Section Fifteen: A word about who we are and our goals for the future - how you can help.

Water To Waste Section Sixteen: Gratitude to our sponsors and links to more information.

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