Management options for small communities

To protect human health and the environment, communities must have proper design, installation and management of treatment systems. When a system that has not been properly maintained fails prematurely, it costs more than just out-of-pocket dollars for the homeowner or community to replace it. There may be the hidden costs of contaminated surface and groundwater, overall water quality degradation and reduced property values. In some cases, homeowners may find there is no place to put another new system. This is especially true for lakeshore properties and small communities, many of which were platted in the 1970s or earlier. 

While there are many reasons to take care of wastewater treatment systems, be it your own on-site system or your community's treatment system, the lesson is the same—Pay now, or pay more later!

Wastewater management options

Chapter 4 from the Small Community Wastewater Solutions book discussed monitoring, operation and management of individual and cluster systems. These questions and more are answered in this chapter excerpt from the book Small community wastewater solutions.

Management plans

For homeowners

Management begins at home. The residents of every household need to control the quality and quantity of their wastewater, if sending it to an individual treatment system or a cluster system or to a large community system.

Many homeowners with individual systems and participants in small cluster systems prefer to provide their own system management. These plans will help homeowners develop some best management practices.

There are several options for management in small communities. Many choose legal entities. Please go to the Organizational Options page for information on these options.

Monitoring and mitigation plan

Alternative systems are required to have a monitoring plan, which evaluates how is it working, including sampling and testing to assure the waste is treated. The determination of what is to be sampled and how often is determined by the site characteristics, choice in system and local governmental unit (LGU). A mitigation plan, which lays out what will happen if the system fails to adequately treat needs to be submitted to the LGU. These are sample forms that may be used:

Ownership and management of onsite sewage treatment systems

The goal of onsite sewage treatment is to protect human health and the environment by safely recycling wastewater back into the natural environment in a cost-effective manner. The on-site treatment of wastewater is dependent on a properly designed, installed, operated and maintained treatment system. A good system will not properly treat sewage over it's intended life without appropriate and timely operation and maintenance – management!

Individual systems are likely to be owned and managed by the individual owner. Traditional treatment systems typically require less management than 'alternative treatment' systems. Owners may wish to or be required to hire professional management of 'alternative' systems. Special knowledge of the system and its operation and maintenance will be required in either case.

Multiple-household and 'alternative treatment' systems require a higher level of management. Each homeowner must be responsible for their usage of the system and rely on co-users to do the same. All of the users collectively must be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the commonly used portions of the system. Alternative systems may use mechanical components, living plants, or other processes which require special attention.

Management of the system must include all aspects of the system but key components would be:

  • Amounts of wastewater generated by each unit and the accumulated flow
  • Contents of the wastewater (solids, chemicals, nutrients, etc.)
  • Maintenance of tanks, pumps and filters
  • Monitoring of overall system performance

The amount and cost of management will vary considerably with the size, type, and complexity of the treatment system. New technology usually requires more attention by the owners and regulators because of its unfamiliarity and unproven track record. The management necessary for new technology must be determined right up-front. A plan must determine 'who will do what' and 'when and how' they will do it. It must also be carried out to be effective!

When multiple-household units and 'alternative treatment' systems are used in new developments, the local government unit and the developer likely make the ownership and management structure decisions for the future owners. When these systems are installed in existing neighborhoods, the organizational structure decision will likely involve all of owners and their local government unit.

In Minnesota there are six management structure options:

  • Environmental Subordinate Service Districts
  • Sanitary Sewer Districts
  • Home Owner Associations
  • Municipal Utilities
  • Homeowner Cooperatives
  • Private Joint Ventures

The first four are currently in operation in Minnesota. Each of them has strengths and weaknesses to be considered in any local application.

Independent of which organizational structure is used; all residents must take an active responsibility for the amounts and contents of the wastewater they generate. They must all be willing to adequately finance the care and monitoring of the entire system. Establishing rules for system users to follow in the day-to-day use of the system may be necessary to resolve problems should they arise but early and effective education of all users is likely to be more effective in assuring appropriate day-to-day usage.

A properly designed, installed, operated, maintained system = safely recycled water!