TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Engineering researchers at The University of Alabama are part of a prestigious project to demonstrate effective solutions to raw sewage draining into the waterways of the state’s Black Belt region.
UA is one of several universities partnered in a project supported and managed by Columbia World Projects to pilot an approach to wastewater treatment in Alabama’s Black Belt and demonstrate that clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment systems can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for rural communities. The project aims to provide equitable, technically feasible and financially sustainable methods for delivering wastewater treatment systems to underserved, low-income communities in the United States and around the world. The initial $710,000 funding for the 5-year project can be leveraged to secure more grants.
“The majority of areas in the rural Black Belt of Alabama do not have adequate wastewater management and for most households there is no feasible solution available,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, UA associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “We are confident that we have a solution that is affordable and sustainable for a majority of these households.”
At select pilot sites, the project will install and test new wastewater treatment systems that are clustered and decentralized, connecting neighboring homes or businesses in a single system that collects, treats and re-uses water, reducing the cost of upkeep. It seeks to address the challenge of untreated raw sewage discharges from homes throughout counties in the Black Belt, an economically depressed region in the state named for its dark, rich soil.
“This project brings together university researchers and rural communities in Alabama to tackle a long-standing source of inequality – the lack of affordable, reliable wastewater services,” said Nicholas Lemann, director of Columbia World Projects. “Closing this gap will not only be good for the heath, environment and livelihoods of people living in these underserved parts of Alabama, but also may serve as a model for communities across the world grappling with similar challenges.”
The first pilot site is planned for Newbern in Hale County.
The situation of untreated wastewater in the Black Belt has brought the attention of the United Nations, which sent an official to examine straight pipe drainage in 2017. There has also been national and international reporting on the conditions as studies have shown diseases and parasites common in tropical areas, once thought contained in the United States, are appearing in the Black Belt.
“The lack of wastewater management in the rural Black Belt is fundamentally a public health issue, but there is more to it than that,” said Dr. Kevin White, professor and chair of civil, coastal and environmental engineering at the University of South Alabama and a research on this project. “It’s also about rural, poor counties that do not have the means to correct the lack of a critical, developed-world sewer infrastructure that allows for economic growth and development, environmental protection and public health protection.”
Much of the country can dispose of household wastewater safely, either into a sewer system that leads to a municipal wastewater treatment plant or into a septic system that uses engineering and natural geology to filter out contaminants before reaching the groundwater.
In the Black Belt, an area of 17 counties across mostly southwest Alabama, most residents do not have access to public sewer and the soil conditions cause septic systems to fail. Underneath the topsoil are clay and chalk, which prevent infiltration of wastewater into the ground. This can cause a backup of a septic system and risk sending untreated wastewater into the streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater nearby.
Added to the soil challenge, the Black Belt is a poverty-stricken area of the country, especially outside its small towns. Many find it difficult to afford advanced septic systems needed for the soil, instead using a straight pipe running from the home to some other part of the property to drain untreated wastewater.
A 2017 survey by Elliott’s group in Wilcox County conservatively estimated that 60 percent of homes without sewer access discharge wastewater without treatment. Elliott said it is possible more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage enter the rivers and streams in Wilcox County each day.
It’s estimated that 90 percent of septic systems in the Black Belt function poorly or are failing because of soil conditions.
Elliott’s lab has worked in the region to show human fecal contamination is present in local waterways and led an effort to build a model to quantify the extent of untreated raw sewage discharges from homes throughout five counties in the Black Belt.
Clustered, decentralized wastewater treatment – in which collection, treatment, and disposal or reuse take place near the wastewater source – offers a potential solution for many underserved communities. New technologies have the potential to address wastewater challenges at different spatial scales and population densities, and under different climate and water availability and quality levels, all of which could dramatically reduce the cost of wastewater infrastructure.
This project aims to demonstrate the applicability and feasibility of this new, clustered, decentralized technology; to measure how such solutions can improve local water quality and the health of surrounding residents; and to offer a path for other communities facing similar challenges to improve wastewater treatment and the environmental, economic and health conditions in their communities.
Along with UA, researchers on the project come from Columbia University, the University of South Alabama, University of California Irvine and the University of North Carolina, and Auburn University is a partner, as well.
Columbia World Projects is an initiative at Columbia University that mobilizes the university’s researchers and scholars to work with governments, organizations, businesses and communities to tackle global challenges and improve people’s lives.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.