Wastewater Challenges in Rural Alabama

The spring edition of NOWRA’s Onsite Journal features an article by the University of Alabama focusing on the “Black Belt” region. This area encompasses 17 counties in Alabama and is named for its abundant Blackland Prairie soil, characterized by its distinctive shrink-swell qualities that pose challenges for traditional drainfields.  While advanced treatment systems could offer a solution in certain areas, they are financially out of reach for the majority of households in this region.

  • In Alabama, 35% of households rely on onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), with approximately 170,000 of these households located in the 17-county Black Belt Region.
  • The Black Belt faces challenges due to limited centralized sewer systems, widespread poverty, and the presence of Blackland Prairie soil, which inhibits conventional drainfields, leading to failing septic systems and direct discharge pipes.
  • Despite the need, advanced treatment systems are often unaffordable for most households, resulting in the common use of straight pipes for surface discharge of wastewater.
  • Surveys indicate that about 50% of unsewered homes in certain counties have raw sewage in their yards, posing health risks such as pathogen exposure from fecal contamination of groundwater.
  • Efforts to address these challenges have gained national and international attention, leading to the formation of the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Management (CARWW), which focuses on implementing the “Three-Legged Stool” approach to wastewater infrastructure:
    • Connect unsewered residents to existing municipal collection/treatment systems with upgrades to municipal collection/treatment systems as needed.
    • Implement low O&M decentralized sewer/treatment systems in the form of clusters for residents who cannot tie to existing municipal sewer.
    • Connect the remaining residents to cost-effective individual onsite systems.
  • Wastewater needs studies have been conducted for 16 of the 17 Black Belt counties, aiming to identify populations in need of wastewater service and appropriate infrastructure approaches.
  • The Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program (BBUWP) in Lowndes County serves as a pilot program to install OWTS for low-income households, aiming to address wastewater challenges in the region.
  • A pilot project at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama, involves installing a modular clustered wastewater system to serve as a model for decentralized wastewater management in the Black Belt.
  • Efforts are also underway to develop a comprehensive how-to guide for rural wastewater management, providing resources and information for local residents.
  • The team plans to finalize wastewater needs studies and the how-to guide in the coming months, with ongoing efforts to address wastewater infrastructure challenges in the Alabama Black Belt.
Posted in

Michelle Jenkins

Michelle Jenkins is an Information Officer with NEIWPCC. She also serves as a YOWA Board Member.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *