Columbia University is working with local groups to solve AL’s sewage problem

In recent years, the overwhelming lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure in Lowndes County has drawn attention to rural Alabama. But straight pipes and sewage flooding don’t stop at county lines.

The rich clay soil that often prevents traditional septic systems from working in the Lowndes extends throughout the Black Belt region, causing the same problems in at least a dozen additional counties.

Columbia World Projects—Columbia University’s international research initiative—estimates that 90 percent of septic systems in Alabama’s Black Belt malfunction or fail due to improper soil conditions.

After discovering this long-standing problem, Columbia partnered with Alabama stakeholders like the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater in 2020 to design a solution.

Heavy rains also caused sewer systems to overflow in Autauga County.

They have completed most of the initial work of identifying communities in need and developing affordable technologies, and now Columbia World Projects is launching the second phase of its “Transforming Wastewater Infrastructure in the United States” project.

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The group will install its first working treatment system in Hale County, connect several communities there, and help area towns access newly available federal funding for wastewater infrastructure upgrades.

Project leader and University of Alabama professor Mark Elliott says they hope to accomplish all of this within the next year.

“I really hope this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to right those wrongs,” Elliott said. “There are so many communities in the rural black belt that have never had proper wastewater management.”

Once Hale County’s system is in place, it will serve as a “proof of concept,” so the group can better predict budgets and timelines for future systems.

This map shows the risk of straight pipe sewage drainage from properties not connected to a sewer system in Wilcox County, Alabama

Over the course of the entire project, Elliott expects the groups to be able to install around five systems at a cost of around $15,000 per home. The costs are expected to be covered by funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the recently passed bipartisan Infrastructure Act, which Columbia World Projects will help communities access.

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“A lot of it is actually helping them figure out how to actually get the money. Most of these governments don’t have a great capacity to ask for funding,” Elliott said.

The Alabama state legislature voted in January to approve spending $225 million in ARPA funds to help public water and sewer systems with the greatest infrastructure needs. $5 million is for “Black Belt Demonstration Sewer Projects,” including the Columbia World Projects initiative.

Since the state made this funding available, at least 398 water and sewer systems across the state have applied for drinking water or sewer grants, more than 37% of all public systems. state water and sewer.

“This is a historic opportunity to meet the long-standing water and sewer needs for the benefit of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Alabamians,” said the director of the Department of Management. of the Alabama Environment, Lance LeFleur, in a press release. “There is nothing more fundamental to good health than clean water and sanitary sewage disposal.”

Kevin White, a University of South Alabama professor and project co-lead, plays a key role in reaching out to various area mayors, city councils, and county commissioners to help them access these funds.

Kevin White, a professor at the University of South Alabama and project manager, plays a key role in communicating with various mayors, city councils, and county commissioners in the area.

“The lack of wastewater management in the rural black belt is fundamentally a public health issue,” White said in a press release. “It is also about the absence of an essential developed global infrastructure that enables economic growth and development, environmental protection and protection of public health.”

Elliott said it’s important to note that the Columbia World Projects group is not “in competition” with other groups like the Black Belt Unincorporated Wastewater Program. In fact, White plays a leadership role for both projects.

While BBUWP is primarily focused on helping Lowndes County and Columbia World Projects is starting in Hale County, they are working in the same direction to solve the sewage crisis.

On a property near Fort Deposit, Alabama, residents use a traditional septic tank that often overflows.

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“The big difference between our two approaches is that BBUWP does systems for a single house, and we do systems where houses are networked into a small sewer system,” Elliott said. “Instead of trying to drain the sewage into the ground, we actually move it to a central location and treat it, or we find another existing sewage system that already has responsible management that we can actually go to. physically connect to take this wastewater.”

Elliott says their first system is expected to come into Hale County this summer.

Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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