Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

by Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

Standing Sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama

Raw sewage outside a home in Lowndes County, Alabama (source: http://eji.org/node/629)

When most of us think or speak about people who lack access to adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment — if we think or speak of them at all– it usually brings to mind folks in developing countries half way across the globe. Just as an upcoming United Nations Summit on development goals seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” we want the people of those countries to have the basic human rights that we may take for granted daily at our taps and toilets. Unfortunately, we often overlook communities in our own backyard who lack access to clean water and sanitation.

Here in the United States, communities that lack access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation can be found in colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, in rural Alaska Native Villages, in Appalachia, and in the Black Belt of the southern U.S. In EPA’s Sustainable Communities Branch of the Office of Wastewater Management, we focus on these communities.

Last year, we visited Willisville, a small, historic, rural community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia, considered one of the wealthiest counties in America. Yet in unincorporated Willisville, many of its largely low income, African-American families lived without indoor plumbing, relying instead on privies and outhouses, and drawing their water from shallow wells, as their ancestors had done since the community’s founding just after the Civil War. In 1998, the Loudoun County Health Department found that the majority of homes in Willisville had inadequate drinking water supplies, and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Additionally, the poor soil quality was not compatible with the installation of traditional septic systems, while more costly alternative systems were out of the price range of residents.

Bringing adequate infrastructure to Willisville had presented funding, planning, and installation challenges. In 2007, a joint venture of the County, the local water authority, and the community, provided an on-site community wastewater collection and treatment system that replaced outhouses and failing drain fields. The County covered most of the cost of connecting homes to the system, drilling new wells, and adding bathrooms, kitchen sinks, and washing-machine hookups. Yet even with these improvements, additional challenges remained. Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes, for example, would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, due to the determination of key individuals, Willisville residents were able to work with the County and nonprofit organizations to modify the tax base to allow residents to afford the new services.

Unfortunately, the situation that had plagued Willisville can be seen in other communities around the country.

Take for example, Lowndes County, Alabama, a mostly rural minority community with a 27 percent poverty rate. In 2002, it was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or were using an inadequate one. In addition, 50 percent of the existing septic systems did not work properly. The community had been built on highly impermeable clay soils that do not quickly absorb water, making installing sophisticated and advanced septic systems very cost prohibitive. It was not uncommon to see raw sewage in fields, yards, and ditches. Inadequate wastewater management became a public health hazard and an environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. In 2011, the situation was the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry.

In 2010, EPA entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management plan for rural Lowndes County. The grant demonstrates the use of affordable or new technologies in an effort to address the inadequate disposal of raw sewage in Lowndes County. The grant not only signifies an important first step to improving the area’s basic sanitation services, but it provides a model to help protect water quality and human health in this community and others around the country.

Most people living in the United States enjoy access to safe water and sanitation. Yet, there are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County for which the opposite is true. Providing funding and technical assistance to underserved communities can help them tackle the complex issues of improving their water and wastewater infrastructure. But it’s not a task that can be undertaken by a single individual. These efforts will require multi-stakeholder engagement and the collaboration of public, private, and academic partnerships with the affected communities to achieve environmental justice. We’ve seen the success first hand, and we know it’s possible.

Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

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