Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems

A Program  Strategy

 USEPA Office of Water

                "Proper septic system maintenance is a commonly overlooked
                responsibility. Failing systems are a significant threat to our health
                and our water quality. Property owners can save themselves a lot
                of money  and trouble by following a few simple guidelines."

A message from  Ben Grumbles,

Assistant Administrator of the Office of  Water

Decentralized wastewater treatment systems (commonly called septic systems) are a significant
component of this nation's wastewater infrastructure. They can be an effective option for
protecting public health and the environment if properly designed, installed, and  managed.
They can be a significant threat to public health and the environment if they are  not.

I am pleased to publish this Strategic Plan to improve the performance of decentralized
wastewater treatment systems. This Strategic Plan presents our key goals and planned actions
for our decentralized  wastewater treatment system program. It builds on existing  partnerships
to provide a solid foundation of information, training, management, and oversight. It includes
components for regulators, service providers, and property owners. I believe this Strategic Plan
is a significant step forward for communities that choose a decentralized approach to help
protect the health of  their citizens and the environment.
                              Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

11          Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems:
A  Program  Strategy
                                     This strategy presents EPA's vision,
                                     mission and actions to improve the
                                     performance of decentralized wastewater
                                     treatment systems, thereby providing
                                     better protection of public health and
                                     water resources.
Decentralized wastewater treatment systems are appropriately managed, perform
effectively, protect human health and the environment, and are a key component of
our nation's wastewater infrastructure.

EPA will provide national direction and support to improve the performance of
decentralized systems by  promoting the concept of continuous management and
facilitating upgraded professional standards of practice.

This program strategy builds upon  EPA's 2003-2008 Agency Strategic Plan, which
identifies septic systems as a source of pollution. The program strategy includes the
principles and strategic goals that will guide EPA's decentralized wastewater program
over the next five years. To accomplish these goals, EPA will  implement a series of
actions internally and externally through partnerships with state and local governments
and national organizations representing practitioners and the  public (see Key Strategic
Goals and Actions section).
                             Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

i  ..

Decentralized wastewater systems, often called "septic" or "onsite"
systems, derive their name from their location—they treat wastewa-
ter close to the source, typically providing treatment on the property
of individual homes or businesses. Decentralized systems also
include systems serving clusters of individual homes, large capacity
septic systems, and small collection and treatment systems (includ-
ing "package plants"). These systems similarly treat wastewater
close to the source, typically using small pipes for collecting small
volumes of domestic wastewater, unlike centralized urban wastewa-
ter treatment systems that pipe large amounts of wastewater  many
miles through sewers prior to reaching the treatment facility.

Centralized wastewater treatment facilities typically discharge treated
waste to surface streams, while decentralized systems (especially
smaller ones) usually disperse treated waste under the ground
surface, where the soil provides further treatment. Some decentral-
ized  systems are designed to discharge to surface waters following
treatment, and these  systems are also addressed in EPA's program
                          Problem Statement
                          Decentralized systems are an issue of national concern. Based on current information,
                          decentralized systems:
                                 • Serve 25% of the  U.S. population3
                                 • Are used in about one-third of all new housing and commercial development3
                                 • Are typically utilized in rural areas, however, more than half of the 25 million
                                   systems are found in suburban areas3

                          Decentralized systems protect human health and water quality when they are properly
                          sited, designed, installed, operated and maintained. However, it has been estimated that:
                                 • Between 10 and 20% of all onsite systems are not adequately treating waste
                                   (actual failure rates are unknown); the failure rate for cluster systems which
                                   discharge is being researched3'13
                                 • Half are more than 30 years old, and more likely to malfunction3
                                 • Septic systems are the second greatest threat to groundwater quality0 (as
                                   viewed  by State water quality agencies)

                          There is currently limited  information to document health and water quality problems
                          resulting from poorly designed, operated and maintained systems, partly due to their
                          widely distributed nature. The amount of impact to groundwater and surface water
                          a U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, American Housing Survey for the United States-1995, issued September 1997.
                          b V.I., Nelson, S.P. Dix, and F. ShefhatA, Advanced Onsite Wastewater Treatment and Management Scoping Study, May 1999.
                          c U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Water Quality Inventory-. 1996 Report to Congress, EPA 841-R-97-008,1998.
       Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

from sub-surface dispersal or surface-discharging decentralized systems is generally
unknown. These impacts are currently being investigated by EPA.

While complete quantitative information is lacking, there are many examples of improp-
erly functioning onsite and other decentralized wastewater systems contributing to
water quality impairments. These types of wastewater systems have been identified as
contributors to numerous water quality problems, including swimming beach closures,
drinking water source impairments, and shellfish bed closures.

This program strategy identifies how EPA will address water quality impacts by working
with state and local regulators and other key stakeholders to upgrade the performance
of decentralized systems through better management practices (siting, design, installa-
tion, permitting, inspections, operation and maintenance, etc.), as well as to upgrade
professional standards in the decentralized wastewater industry. The strategy also speci-
fies how the recommended management practices will be integrated in the activities and
approaches being applied in the various EPA water programs, thereby helping to achieve
mutual water quality objectives and public health protection goals.

Historical Background
The use of septic tanks for primary treatment of wastewater began in the late 1800s,
and discharge of septic tank effluent into gravel-lined subsurface drains became a
common practice during the middle of the 20th century. Public health departments
were charged with enforcing the first onsite wastewater "disposal" laws, which were
mostly based on soil percolation rates. During the 1950s, states began to adopt laws
upgrading onsite system design and installation practices. Despite these improvements,
many regulations are based on prescribed system designs that require site conditions to
fit system capabilities rather than the reverse. The prevailing philosophy was based on
the assumption that centralized wastewater collection and treatment services would be
available in the future. The result was a wide variety of state and local regulations and
codes controlling decentralized systems.

The 1970s saw an increase in research and
technology development, creating a host of alter-
native decentralized systems capable of meeting
secondary and advanced levels of treatment.
However, the management of these systems
(site evaluation, installation, operation and
maintenance) remained at the pre-1970s level
of sophistication, as did the levels of aware-
ness and education of the property owner and
regulator. As a result, many systems have been
sited, designed, installed, operated and main-
tained based on outdated codes,  regulations and
                                       Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

                  Findings - Report to Congress
                  In 1996, Congress directed EPA to develop a report addressing: (a) the ability of decen-
                  tralized systems to make more efficient use of the limited funding available for wastewa-
                  ter infrastructure,  (b) whether these systems were appropriate alternatives to centralized
                  treatment, and if so,  (c) what actions EPA would take to implement the alternatives.
                  In April 1997, EPA developed its Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized
                  Wastewater Treatment System". In this document, EPA concluded that decentralized
                  systems can protect public health and the environment, typically have lower capital and
                  maintenance costs for rural communities, are appropriate for varying site conditions, and
                  are suitable for ecologically sensitive areas when adequately managed.  However, several
                  major barriers to the  improved performance of these systems were identified,  including:
                         • Lack of awareness about system maintenance requirements, and public
                           misperception regarding system performance and capability
                         • Regulatory and legal constraints
                         • Lack of management
                         • Fear of  liability; financial disincentive  for engineering consultants
                         • Financial constraints

                  Until significant progress toward eliminating these major barriers is made, it is  likely that
                  decentralized systems will continue to cause  health  and environmental problems, and
                  will not be recognized as a key component of our nation's  long-term wastewater infra-

                                    Stakeholder Involvement
                                    A wide variety of stakeholders involved in regulating and servicing
                                    decentralized systems have expressed  an interest in EPA involve-
                                    ment. This includes regulatory agencies at the Federal (USDA and
                                    HUD), state and tribal (health and environmental agencies), and
                                    local levels. Other stakeholders include service  providers  such as
                                    planners,  developers, site evaluators, designers, operators,  inspec-
                                    tors, manufacturers, pumpers and waste haulers. In addition, home-
                                    owners are increasingly interested in advice on  proper maintenance
                                    and cost-effective solutions to wastewater issues.

                  EPA has  initiated an extensive outreach program to obtain  assistance in reaching the vari-
                  ous stakeholders.  Many stakeholders are represented by national organizations that have
                  agreed to partner  with EPA, including:
                         • State onsite regulators
                         • National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association
                         • National Environmental Services Center
                         • National Environmental Health Association
                         • National Association of County Officials
Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

       • National Association of City and County Health Officials
       • National Association of Towns and Townships
       • Rural Community Assistance Partnership
       • National Association of Waste Transporters
       • Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Systems
       • Water Environment Federation

Guiding Principles
The following principles will guide the efforts of EPA to ensure implementation of systems
that protect public health and the environment:
o  Protection of Public  Health and the Environment. EPA supports the most
   sustainable approach to implementing protective water pollution control solutions
   whether it be centralized or decentralized. Where used, decentralized systems
   must provide protection of public health and the environment for their served
   communities. This applies equally regardless of the economic status, race or size of
   the community.

o  Local Decision-making. The  decision to implement a centralized or decentralized (or
   combination) solution to wastewater treatment needs is made at the local level.

o  Watershed-wide Integration. Integrated wastewater facility planning and
   management of water resources on a watershed level promotes sound and
   sustainable communities. The role of properly sited,  designed, installed and managed
   decentralized systems that provide for recycling and  reuse of treated wastewater
   for groundwater recharge, replenishment of aquifers  and protection of ground and
   surface water, should be considered in  planning.

o  State, Tribal and Local Government Authority. States, Tribes and some local
   governments are responsible  for regulating and managing decentralized systems.
   Flexibility  is needed to craft and implement cost-effective management programs
   that are suitable for each individual community.

o  Agency-wide Coordination. Most water programs have a role, either direct or
   indirect, in managing or working with decentralized systems. In  dealing with
   decentralized systems, all water programs should facilitate improved siting, design,
   installation and management that protect human  health and the environment.
   Agency programs (including point source, non-point source, groundwater, and
   funding programs) should regularly coordinate on issues that affect decentralized

o  Cost Effectiveness.  Implementation of this strategy will provide for a broader
   range of cost effective options for communities to consider in meeting their needs,
   particularly in those  communities that are less densely populated.
                                       Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

                  o  Partnerships. Implementation of this strategy will depend on voluntary partnerships
                     with States/Tribes, local governments, service providers and other stakeholders.

                  o  Targeted Efforts. Given the wide variety of barriers to address, implementation of
                     this strategy will focus on those activities that produce the greatest environmental
                     and public health benefit.

                  Key Strategic Goals and Actions

                   Strategic Goal #1:   Strengthened internal and external partnerships

                            Action 1:   Develop action plans in each Regional office to address Regional
                                       and watershed-specific activities to support the Program
                                       Strategy. Hold annual meetings of EPA coordinators.

                            Action 2:   Conduct forums in each Regional office to promote collaboration
                                       between regional, state and  local regulators.

                            Action 3:   Develop a Memorandum of Understanding with external partners
                                       to solidify their support for the program.

                            Action 4:   Identify and pursue opportunities for improved coordination
                                       among water programs (point source,  non-point source, estuar-
                                       ies,  watersheds, water quality cooperative agreements,  source
                                       water assessment and protection, UIC, TMDL).

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Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

Strategic Goal #2:
Improved system performance through improved practitioner
competency, management practices, and technology transfer.
         Action 1:   EPA, working with the stakeholders, will publish a Management
                    Handbook and other tools that serve as implementation guidance
                    for the Management Guidelines.

         Action 2:   Provide assistance in upgrading training, registration, certifica-
                    tion  and licensing programs for practitioners (i.e., site evaluators,
                    designers, installers, inspectors and maintenance providers).

         Action 3:   Provide assistance with implementation of a model regulatory
                    code using performance-based standards developed using sound
         Action 4:
Strategic Goal #3:
Identify efforts needed to improve acceptance of appropriately
managed systems.

Improved accountability, control and oversight through
enhanced state and local program implementation and
regulatory reform.
         Action 1:  Continue to manage projects demonstrating approaches for
                   improved state and local management programs. Share the
                   results with interested parties.

         Action 2:  Conduct study to characterize the impact of malfunctioning
                   decentralized systems, discharging and non-discharging, on
                   surface and groundwater quality. Encourage states and local
                   communities  to inventory and assess systems. Develop easy to
                   use software  for inventorying and tracking systems.

         Action 3:  Provide assistance to states in adopting the Management
                   Guidelines  and meeting commitments under the Government
                   Performance  Results Act measure.

         Action 4:  Reaffirm policies that integrate  EPA programs that share regula-
                   tory authority over various decentralized activities to assure com-
                   pliance with regulatory requirements. These programs include
                   permits for wastewater and stormwater discharges, underground
                   injection control, source water assessment and protection, non-
                   point source control, watersheds management, total maximum
                   daily  loads, enforcement and compliance, and coastal zones .

         Action 5:  Initiate efforts to improve management practices for key problem
                   areas, including cesspools, communities lacking basic sanitation
                   and significantly impacted source waters.
                                     Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

                              Strategic Goal #4:  Improved local decision-making through improved public

                                       Action 1:  Continue to develop outreach and education materials, dis-
                                                  seminate materials, and reach out to organizations representing
                                                  state and local officials, practitioners, financing authorities, and
                                                  environmental advocacy groups.

                                       Action 2:  Explore options to promote development of appropriate manage-
                                                  ment programs when funding decentralized systems using SRF.

                             Major Accomplishments/Actions to Date

                             •  EPA's 1997 Response to Congress on Use of Decentralized Wastewater Treatment
                                Systems  is considered a landmark document that, for the first time, articulated
                                EPA's position on decentralized systems. The report is at least partly responsible for
                                increased activity and progress in the decentralized field.
                             •  Since 1998, Congressional  interest has increased, resulting in $46 million in funding
                                specifically directed towards addressing the barriers outlined in the 1997 report to
                             •  In 1999, the first annual meeting of state onsite regulators was held. The sixth
                                annual meeting is planned for March, 2005.
                             •  In May 2001, EPA issued a determination  that Class V well regulations under the
                                Underground Injection Control  program are adequate to protect drinking water from
                                existing large capacity septic system(s). As an additional layer of protection, EPA
                                efforts to develop guidance for  improving management practices were cited.
                             •  In February 2002,  EPA published its Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems
                                Manual, an extremely popular document used for designing onsite systems using a
                                performance-based approach.
                             •  In February 2003,  EPA's highly successful "Wastewater Month" featured the
                                distribution of thousands of brochures to inform homeowners of their responsibility to
                                properly maintain septic systems.
                             •  In March 2003,  EPA released Voluntary National Guidelines for Management of
                                Onsite and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Treatment Systems.
                             •  EPA's Strategic Plan, completed in September 2003, recognizes decentralized
                                systems as an  important part of the nation's wastewater infrastructure. The Strategic
                                Plan incorporates a Government Performance Results Act measure to assist states in
                                their adoption of EPA's Management Guidelines.
                             •  In September 2003, the first national meeting of the EPA  Regional Coordinators
                                for the Decentralized  Wastewater Program was held. Another is planned  for March,
                                2005, and annually thereafter.
8           Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

•  In June 2004, EPA's Septic System Website became one of the first designed under
   the Agency's topics-based requirement ("web-lite").

•  As of September 2004, five states have  adopted the Management Guidelines:
   Arizona, Florida, New Jersey,  North Carolina and Rhode Island.

Next Steps

      •  EPA will share this program strategy with its partners and work toward the
         vision of appropriately performing  and managed decentralized wastewater

      •  The strategy will be evaluated and updated, as appropriate, every five years.

      •  EPA headquarters will work cooperatively with the EPA regional offices to
         implement the actions under each of the identified strategic goals.
                                      Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems: A Program Strategy

                       United States
                       Environmental Protection
Additional copies of this document, (EPA 832-R-05-002),
                can be obtained from:

         U.S. EPA Publications Clearinghouse
                   P.O. Box 42419
                Cincinnati, OH 45242

               Telephone: 800-490-9198
                  Fax: 513-489-8695
                 EPA 832-R-05-002

                    January 2005