Top Issues Facing Small Wastewater Treatment Systems

For small wastewater treatment systems, the bottom line is bucks.
Top Issues Facing Small Wastewater Treatment Systems
As costs increase and the funds available to operate and maintain the small treatment plants shrink, operators face demands from the political boards and elected officials to cut expenses.

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On its website, the U.S. EPA lists what it considers the biggest challenges facing small (less than 1 mgd) wastewater treatment systems: 

  • Economic/financial limitations;
  • Inability to sustain community-wide systems (lack of economies of scale);
  • Inability to attract and maintain system operators;
  • Lack of managerial competency and consistency;
  • Extreme topography and climate;
  • Geographic isolation/remoteness. 

But those who are active in the field say it’s even tougher than that, and the issue of money may dwarf all others. 

Robert Rubin, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, is a champion of small systems. He makes the point that ever since the Clean Water Act was adopted some 40 years ago, the lion’s share of the funding for wastewater treatment has gone to larger cities and communities. 

At the same time, regulations like nutrient removal and advanced treatment have been imposed on small systems just as well, even though they’ve had to scrape for funds to make the improvements. 

“It’s been an unfunded mandate,” he says of the situation. “Regulatory agencies have chosen not to be flexible where small systems are concerned. It isn’t fair. Many communities have onsite treatment systems. The cost of new regulations can be phenomenal.” 

Ratepayers may not be able to afford the cost of additional treatment in smaller communities, which reflect a unique demographic, Rubin notes. “The ratepayer base in many communities is either fixed income, elderly, or low-income workers, and it’s dwindling. Higher rates are difficult to collect.” 

At the plant level, small system operators look at the same issue through a different pair of glasses. Tom High, project manager for Infrastructure Alternatives, which operates a number of small plants in the Midwest, points out that as costs increase and the funds available to operate and maintain the small treatment plants shrink, operators are facing demands from the political boards and elected officials to cut expenses. 

“In many cases, the political leaders are arbitrarily imposing cuts,” he says. “Training is often the first item to be cut or eliminated. In my township, payment for training or for certification is virtually nonexistent; employees must pay for their own if they want to advance or become certified.” 

Budget reductions can also impact maintenance, High says. “Spare parts inventories are reduced and replacement of equipment is stretched out to a dangerous level.” 

He points out that some states are requiring asset management programs as part of the NPDES permit — a positive trend if regulatory agencies can require implementation of these requirements. 

“I fear that many treatment plants will only implement a minimum asset management program to satisfy the regulators,” he says, “and not implement a program that will actually improve maintenance of equipment.” 

Poorly conceived short-term savings often lead to long-term losses, High concludes. 

Rubin agrees. “In many small communities there is limited attention devoted to effective asset management,” he says. “That is often due to the rates and the capitol reserve fund depletion. 

“Again, small communities lose.”


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