Wastewater service demand is shifting in rural and urban areas
Approximately 56% of the world’s inhabitants now live in cities. The rapid urbanization on the current scale is historically new and expected to continue. The urban population is projected to double by 2050, with cities expanding and water utilities struggling to keep up with demand.
In developing nations, informal settlements lacking adequate sanitation services spring up on the outskirts of cities. They house rural transplants seeking a better life. Shrinking rural communities also end up with fewer resources to provide water and sanitation. But while the circumstances are different, the global trend carries over into the United States in many ways. Decentralized water and wastewater treatment can address the demographic shifts from both sides.
US Is Not Immune to Global Trends
U.S. regulatory frameworks maintain high standards of water and wastewater treatment and sanitation for new suburban development. Yet the nation is not immune to the global trend of explosively expanding municipal regions, nor to the difficulties facing shrinking rural communities in accessing sanitation and wastewater treatment to protect human health and ecosystems.
In Texas, for instance, a striking 68% of the state’s 30.3 million citizens live inside the Texas Triangle, which encapsulates the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin metropolitan areas. Although most Texans live in cities, the core is not where rapid growth is occurring.
The cities with the highest growth rates are Liberty Hill, Weston, Caddo Mills, Josephine, and Fulshear, once small towns now being engulfed by suburban sprawl. Planned communities and other suburban developments are popping up at twice the national growth rate in Harris County, and the Hill Country region along the Interstate 35 corridor has grown 50% in 20 years.
How Can Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Address Explosive Growth?
Where planned communities and suburban areas are expanding quickly, time and resources may not be adequate to connect to distant municipal wastewater grids and centralized infrastructure. The pipe costs alone might be prohibitive.
What new communities need is to bring the plant to the wastewater. And they do not need the monumental costs, the slow, frustrating negotiations, or the interminable waiting that comes with building large-scale regional plants and their distribution networks. Small communities need a plant tailored to their size that can bring them wastewater treatment independence. They need decentralized treatment.
Cost of Building Pipelines and Pumps Can Be Prohibitive
Pipelines often account for more than 70% of total project capital expenditures because of the pipe cost, environmental impact studies, planning, and construction across sometimes difficult terrain, multiple jurisdictions, and culturally sensitive sites. Construction can take years, and the longer the pipeline, the higher the energy and maintenance costs for the pumping stations. Over time, leaks show up, demanding ever more detection and repair efforts until finally, the entire line needs replacement.
The less pipe, the better. Decentralization brings the plant to the community, even in the absence of infrastructure, eliminating miles of pipeline.
New, decentralized package plants also have unprecedented scalability. An initial-phase package plant can serve in the early stages of community development and can be added to when communities grow. That replaces the guesswork of planning unchangeable wastewater treatment assets ahead of time.
Decentralization Enables New Small Community Wastewater Systems
With the population of rural America shrinking, rural financial resources become scarcer. In recent years, a rural sanitation crisis arose from the high costs of septic systems and repairs. Many homeowners found they had no choice but to discharge their sewage untreated, endangering human health and ecosystems. However, communities with shrinking populations may not feel they have the resources to afford a treatment plant.
The engineering of package wastewater treatment plants has lowered costs and streamlined delivery, and financing options have evolved to enable more infrastructure.
Decentralized package plants featuring modular units that are easily delivered and installed can be purchased under traditional agreements, of course, but now they can also be leased along with everything inside the fence, eliminating high initial capital outlay. Because AUC Group’s package plants are built to match the longevity of traditional plants, AUC plant leases include an option to buy.
A plant lease may be a lifeline for a small community facing septic repairs or replacement. A great deal of funding has been allocated for such projects with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Decentralization Meets Demand with Reuse
The world is becoming more arid, and at the same time, populations demand more fresh water. Water reuse, also known as reclamation or recycling, is virtually a new source of water that is ready to tap.
It hardly makes sense to use water once and then discard it when it can be inexpensively treated and used again safely for an extensive list of applications such as crop or landscape irrigation, toilet flushing, or vehicle washing.
But local reuse is difficult with centralized infrastructure. For the community to reuse the wastewater it generates, not only must a pipeline be built to pump it to the treatment plant, but a separate pipeline also must be built to return it. A decentralized plant within the community keeps the water local so the community can benefit from it without the centralized expense.
But if decentralization has so many advantages, why has its adoption been slow? The momentum of the centralized paradigm is considerable. Decentralization requires us to think in different ways about how to provide water services to communities, but once the advantages are clear, there is no looking back.