What Role Should Pumpers Play in EPA Efforts?

When we understand the basics of decentralized wastewater management, we can help septic system users become good environmental stewards.
What Role Should Pumpers Play in EPA Efforts?
Jim Anderson, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate and recipient of the pumping industry’s Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award. Email Jim questions about septic system maintenance and operation at editor@pumper.com.

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For almost two decades we have heard the term “decentralized wastewater management” talked about by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and multiple national organizations and associations involved with planning, design, installation and servicing of onsite sewage treatment systems. It is the very core of our industry. Yet

I continue to field questions about what the term means and the implications it has for our day-to-day businesses.

It is hard to place an exact date on when this term was introduced, but a good starting point is 1997 and the EPA’s response to Congress about the benefits and barriers to implementing an onsite wastewater management program. At the same time, the federal agency published a document with information about the impacts of decentralized systems, the need for management, and a set of five model management programs. These efforts changed the face of our industry and gave it a legitimacy to be viewed as a long-term solution to wastewater treatment needs for communities.

These guidelines were met by some controversy, however, as they seemed to overlook independent pumpers and service providers by calling for entities such as cooperatives to be involved in the implementation of management programs. For those of us who were around, it took a significant effort to have independent companies viewed as potential contributors to the types of management programs described in the EPA documents.

Efforts have led us to where there currently are more than 17 organizations and agencies working with the EPA under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to further the use of onsite systems to meet wastewater treatment challenges. This partnership and effort means independent companies are viewed as an integral part of the solution and, as a matter of fact, some of those companies are routinely mentioned as being examples of efforts that work.


So what is the definition of decentralized wastewater management? It simply reflects the reality of what we do every day. It is taking care of dispersed individual onsite systems as well as cluster systems for groups of houses, resorts or small communities. Taking care of these systems is what we do; so in fact at some level we are doing decentralized wastewater management.

As the EPA looks at this, it sees not only the opportunity and a viable solution, but it also sees some of the potential problems with using a decentralized approach to supply wastewater treatment needs in some communities. It sees the need for each region to evaluate needs based on the type of community the residents want to see in the future, and then match those needs with the approach that protects public health and the environment.

So, the message is that when your community begins to plan wastewater infrastructure for the future and you feel that a decentralized approach is good for your community, you need to be involved as a voice that highlights the positives for the community and a part of the solution to take care of those needs in the future.

The decentralized approach includes the following benefits:

  • Reduces costs for repairs, operation maintenance and replacement.
  • Extends the life of individual systems.
  • Improves treatment performance.
  • Increases the reliability of the systems to keep operating.
  • Provides satisfaction among homeowners because they are protecting the environment and public health, while having a lower-cost system that will operate for years into the future.
  • Potentially raises property values once all systems in an area are brought up to current standards and are being regularly cared for through a management plan.

The EPA addressed this issue because it saw too many instances where there was a lack of management programs, and homeowners were relied on to assume full responsibility for operation and maintenance of systems. In this scenario, systems are not cared for properly and over time will not perform as intended, causing problems.

Further, with homeowners unaware of how systems are supposed to work – and the dangers present with opening or entering septic or pump tanks when there is a problem – the availability of competent service providers is key to avoiding tragedies where a homeowner dies entering a septic tank or cesspool.


In the EPA’s vision of management, there is a continuing need to educate homeowners about proper onsite system care, while at the same time making sure service providers are properly trained and equipped to provide necessary maintenance.

Next month I will explore the five levels of management described by the EPA, and later in the year I’ll revisit how service providers fit into the decentralized management approach and can best help their clients care for their systems. I would like to hear your stories of how management works in your community, not only the good aspects but where there are problems as well.


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