By Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli
A United Nations summit to adopt sustainable development goals will take place this September. Among these is a proposed goal to “ ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” which expresses global intent to provide adequate water and sanitation to everyone.
When we think about inadequate drinking water and wastewater treatment, it usually brings to mind developing countries. But in our work in the Office of Wastewater Management, we see examples in rural Alaska, Appalachia, the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as smaller communities like Willisville and Lowndes County.
Willisville is a small minority community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia. In the late 1990s, the Loudoun County Health Department surveyed Willisville to determine its water and wastewater needs. It found that the majority of residences had inadequate drinking water supplies and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Most residents used privies and outhouses.
Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, Willisville was able to work with the county and nonprofit organizations to increase taxes incrementally, enabling owners to afford the payments.
In the end, the residences and an area church got indoor plumbing, a cluster system was installed to treat wastewater, and private land was purchased to build a drainfield.
In Lowndes County, Alabama, inadequate wastewater management had become a public health hazard and environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. Mostly rural and primarily African-American, Lowndes County did not have a centralized wastewater management system, and is built on impermeable clay soils that made septic systems cost prohibitive. The county also has a 27 percent poverty rate. Many of the county’s residents disposed of raw sewage in fields, yards and ditches. It was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or an inadequate one.
Beginning in 2010, we entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management approach for rural Lowndes County. This grant is an important first step towards improving basic sanitation services in Lowndes County.
There are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County in the United States. Funding and technical assistance can help them improve inadequate water and wastewater services. It takes collaboration by local, state and federal government to achieve environmental justice for those in underserved communities.
About the authors: 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 research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.