blackbelt

Treating wastewater and improving health in West Alabama

Phase 1 Ribbon Cutting of Newbern’s new sanitary sewer system located at Rural Studio headquarters

The Alabama Black Belt region has long struggled with a lack of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is necessary for both the safety of wildlife and the health of residents. Only half of Black Belt residents have access to a clean and effective municipal sanitary sewer system. The other half are expected to treat waste on their own property.

Rural Studio is part of a large collaboration aiming to address this challenge through an alternative wastewater treatment system. We celebrated the completion of Phase 1 of this new sanitary sewer system at a Newbern Community Fish Fry & Ribbon Cutting on Tuesday, June 4th, 2024.

Community Fish Fry Dinner provided by the University of Alabama

The event welcomed nearly 150 neighbors and friends to learn more about the project and what’s next for the broader Newbern community. On hand to greet and educate the community was the whole research team, consisting of six university and not-for-profit organizations: University of Alabama, University of South Alabama (USA), University of North Carolina, Arizona State University, Columbia University, Black Belt Community Foundation, and Consortium for Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater.

The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium devised solutions to address wastewater needs throughout the Black Belt, and Rural Studio is hosting the demonstration of one such solution. Called a “cluster” system, this treatment unit will initially connect clusters of 50 or so homes within a five-mile radius of the Studio. The homes will share one water treatment unit, which is specially designed for the Black Belt soil. It uses two-inch pipes (instead of larger sewer pipes found in septic systems), so it can withstand the challenges of the clay soil.

For many rural residents nationally, septic systems provide the necessary wastewater treatment, but this method is not an effective solution in the Black Belt. These systems average $10,000-$30,000, making them exorbitantly expensive for lower income residents. Even more prohibitive is the Black Belt’s soil condition: the area’s soil is made of clay, which often leads to backups in septic tanks. It is estimated that roughly half of rural residents in Black Belt counties have failing septic systems or are simply dumping wastewater directly on to their land, leading to raw sewage in and around homes. The Alabama Rural Water and Wastewater Consortium, comprised of volunteer experts from industry, government, and academia, was formed in 2018 to directly address the rural wastewater challenge. As part of this consortium, Rural Studio is leading the way in wastewater treatment for Hale County.

Wastewater treatment unit shown at the 2024 Pig Roast (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

The Rural Studio wastewater project is a prototype for future projects, leveraging funds from several state and federal agencies, including the American Rescue Plan Act, commonly known as the Biden infrastructure bill, the USDA, and Columbia World Projects. These agencies are collaborating to build a plan for increasing the number of Black Belt residents with access to proper wastewater treatment from 50% to 75%. Initially, the wastewater project will be limited to the Rural Studio community, before expanding into community homes. This first phase will provide a proof of concept for local rural residents and show that such a system is both effective and non-invasive.

Associate Professor Emily McGlohn, who spearheads Rural Studio’s wastewater project, stresses the importance of this acceptance: “We know that for a community project to be successful, especially one being presented to the community from an outside group, you really need to let people see it and understand it. So, phase one will just serve us. It’ll be open to the public, and it will let our local community, our local government, individuals and anybody else to come understand the system.”

Along with its hosting role for this first treatment system, Rural Studio, particularly McGlohn, acts as the connective tissue between the government agencies, the Consortium, the collaborating universities, and—most importantly—the residents of Hale County. “I am the community advocate. I communicate with our neighbors to make sure they know what’s going on, with the engineer, with the other faculty team with USA and Alabama, and with the contractor.”

Over its 30 years, Rural Studio’s mission has expanded to promote community wellness in its rural community, and the wastewater project is an outgrowth of that work. Clean sanitation improves the health and well-being of our West Alabama neighbors in an area that has been under-resourced for generations. McGlohn emphasizes the Studio’s vital role in this important work: “It’s truly a public health crisis that the Black Belt counties find themselves in. And there are so few solutions. That’s why we’re here to help.”