Delaware Nonprofit Group Monitors Community Onsite Systems

EDEN Delmarva takes on problem of developers abandoning cluster septic systems and leaving no way to ensure they continue to operate properly.

D.C. Kuhns may be reached at
D.C. Kuhns may be reached at

The state of Delaware may sit in the heavily populated and sewered East Coast, but the rural areas are still dominated by decentralized wastewater systems. And many individual and community onsite systems are failing or not well-maintained.

Some residents of Delaware are experimenting with a new solution. D.C. Kuhns, executive director of the environmental group EDEN Delmarva (Energize Delmarva Now), helped form Clean Water Solutions, the first private, nonprofit water and wastewater utility in the state. If the fledgling project proves out, it could become a model for other communities in Delaware and other states.

Pumper: Why did you pursue this solution?

Kuhns: We took on a 25-year-old problem created by development rules. In the state of Delaware, when a developer has sold 51 percent of the sites in a subdivision, he can tell the homeowners association that he’s out, and they’re on their own for maintaining the community wastewater system. If there’s no reserve fund, the first time something breaks, the members of the community — who have a board if they’re lucky — have to levy a tariff on themselves to fix the problem.

Pumper: Are many rural subdivisions in Delaware in the same situation?

Kuhns: Estimates are that maybe 15 to 25 percent of these systems are broken or out of compliance with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. But we don’t know exactly how many of these cluster communities exist because there are no records. When I say “cluster community,” I mean homes beyond the reach of sewer pipes that depend on collection pipes leading to a central treatment system. We know there are 80,000 septic systems in the state of Delaware. We estimate there are between 80 and 120 of these cluster communities in Sussex County where I’m located and where we are focusing our initial efforts.

Pumper: How did you get involved?

Kuhns: We were contacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They said they would like us to respond to a request for proposal they were sending out, and they asked whether we would be willing to work with others. We said, “Put us all in a room, and let us work it out.” (Note: The USDA is supplying some of the funding for Clean Water Solutions. Money is also coming from the Delaware Community Foundation and Discover Bank.)

Pumper: Who is involved in the Clean Water Solutions partnership?

Kuhns: There’s EDEN Delmarva, which provides financing. There’s Diamond State Sustainability Corp., which provides utility wastewater and water operation. Diamond State Sustainability Corp. was established only last year and is the entity that deals with the Public Service Commission, which has purview over all utility service in the state of Delaware. And there’s the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project. That’s the oldest member of the group. It’s been around since the 1950s and provides advice, outreach and education to low- and moderate-income people in rural parts of the state. As a result, they also represent a lot of homeowners associations that are struggling to stay in compliance with state wastewater regulations.

Pumper: Does Delaware require licensed operators run community onsite systems?

Kuhns: Yes, that’s come about in the last five or 10 years. The state has become very aggressive on two things. One is inspections. If you’re a system owner, you must have your system inspected once every three years. The other thing the state has been aggressive about is outlawing certain types of treatment, for example cesspools.

Pumper: What’s the status of your effort to form a utility?

Kuhns: It took a year and a lot of meetings, but the Delaware Public Service Commission approved Clean Water Solutions as a nonprofit wastewater and water utility for Sussex County. We now have five communities in our pilot project, and each of them has a copy of the contract with us. They’ve had their lawyers look it over, and all they’re waiting for before they sign the contract is for the certificate of public convenience and necessity issued by the Public Service Commission. So far we have only one contract, and that’s with a community called Country Glen II.

Pumper: What will you do for the communities?

Kuhns: Initially we assess their septic system and report back to the board of directors — and also to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control — about what they have. We do this even before we ask them to contract with us. Once a contract is in place, we do three things. First, we establish a lockbox for all the fees collected from system customers, and we use that money to pay contractors who run the system or build improvements. Second, we contract with a certified public accountant or another utility to handle billing. Third, we supervise the people operating the system or doing repairs or construction on the system.

Pumper: What are you doing now while you’re waiting for the certificates from the Public Service Commission?

Kuhns: We’re writing grants. It’s up to EDEN to raise all the money.

Pumper: Do you have plans beyond these five communities?

Kuhns: As soon as the last of our initial five communities is in place, we’ll start a second pilot project. We want to expand, but we also have to prove to the Public Service Commission and our funders that this model is sustainable. If we were a for-profit utility, the rates would be three times higher, and the operations on the cluster community systems would not be sustainable. That’s why we developed our proposal for a nonprofit, and the spreadsheets we prepared show we can make this work with the rates approved by the Public Service Commission. We’re going to exhaust the number of cluster communities in Sussex County before we go elsewhere. That’s probably five years of work.

Beyond that, since 90 million people out of the 330 million in the U.S. treat their wastewater with onsite systems, the opportunities for Clean Water Solutions and other nonprofits are astonishing.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.