Management of Single Family and Small Community Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Systems
Table of Contents
To accommodate future growth in rural
and suburban areas of our state, we will depend more on alternative septic-tank-soil
treatment systems (septic systems). However, as we use more complex and
sophisticated types of septic systems, we must also use more sophisticated
programs for maintaining these systems through their entire
The legal means for establishing sophisticated
wastewater management programs have existed for some time in North Carolina;
however, few communities or counties have used these programs to manage
septic systems. Recent changes in state septic system rules will provide
an incentive for communities to become involved in this process. This
publication explains why these management programs are necessary and briefly
Large regional sewage treatment plants are
not economical for many rural areas. Also, some mechanical treatment plants
may not meet increasingly stringent water quality limits for wastewater
discharge into streams, rivers, lakes, and sounds. Therefore, rural development
in North Carolina depends upon the proper use of septic systems.
There are several different kinds of septic
systems. Conventional septic systems are the simplest and are described
in Cooperative Extension Service publication
The suitability of a building site for on-site sewage treatment and disposal depends upon soil and site conditions. Many sites that are suitable for conventional systems have already been developed, leaving less suitable sites for future use. Consequently, modified conventional and alternative septic systems may become more important for future land development.
These systems can function satisfactorily
if they are used and maintained properly. However, a recent study in North
Carolina found that many alternative septic systems (such as low-pressure
pipe systems and sand mound systems) were not being adequately maintained.
Without maintenance, alternative systems failed twice as often as conventional
systems. The lack of a maintenance program was a major cause of poor system
performance for about
Therefore, to protect the environment and
public health, alternative systems such as low-pressure
State rules concerning septic systems have
changed recently (North Carolina Administrative Code,
Inspections and routine maintenance by a
management entity will be required for newly installed or repaired
Because some of these requirements could
change you may want to contact your local health department. They can
provide up-to-date information about specific requirements of the laws
and rules and about their
Management of a network of on-site and small
community systems presents different challenges from management concerns
typical of large regional sewage treatment plants. Once a septic system
has been designed, installed properly, and approved by the local health
department, the management entity must ensure that all system components
function properly. Responsibilities include monitoring and inspecting
the septic system to ensure that routine operation, maintenance, and repair
procedures are followed. These activities might also include assisting
in rehabilitating systems that are not performing properly, as well as
pumping, treating, and disposing of septage (solids accumulated in the
septic tank). In some cases management entities might also monitor the
performance of innovative septic systems and educate
Selecting a management system is just as
important as choosing appropriate technologies for addressing the community's
wastewater disposal needs. The reliability of the management entity may
ultimately determine the range of wastewater treatment and disposal options
that can be used effectively in a community. There are at least
The direct management category includes six
different possibilities. Some of the features of each management group
for family and small community wastewater systems are briefly
City or County. Both of these governmental units have very broad powers as a possible management entity. They may levy property taxes; impose special assessments; issue general obligation and revenue bonds; set fees, rates, charges, and penalties; condemn land; and establish rules and regulations. Both may serve outside their boundaries. Both have elected governing bodies and, with respect to any given area, would have as strong a financial base as any other alternative.
Much of the need for management is likely to be for wastewater systems outside the city. Moreover, many cities are small in both area and population and may have limited financial and management resources.
County governments, on the other hand, have jurisdiction over a much larger area and in most cases have superior financial resources. They are already organized; thus, relatively little money or time need be expended to establish the organization for the management arrangements.
Furthermore, many cities and counties already have in place a management organization that is providing some wastewater management services. Simply enlarging these to assume increased responsibilities should usually be fairly easy to accomplish.
In North Carolina, any two units of government may contract to accomplish
jointly what each is authorized to do separately. This flexibility makes
it possible for two or more units to share financing and policy making
while preserving the advantages of a single management entity. For example,
if the small wastewater systems to be managed are principally in the unincorporated
area of a county, the county government might take the lead in establishing
rules, regulations, and financing. It might then contract with a city
within the county to take on the responsibility for management of the
small systems in the rural area of
Joint Management Agency.
The joint management agency is a special form of intergovernmental agreement
or contract. In the typical intergovernmental contract, the management
staff is employed by one or more of the participating units. In the pure
joint management agency; all employees are attached to the agency, which
is separate from any of the participating units. The main advantage of
the joint management agency is that it may make joint action possible.
Each of the participating units is sometimes unwilling for the staff to
report to another unit but is willing to cooperate if the staff is independent.
The direct financial resources of the joint management agency are limited
to fees and charges. A joint agency does not have taxing power and may
not own real estate. By the same token, it may not issue general
County Service District. A county service district is simply an area of a county (defined by the county commissioners) that needs some authorized service that the commissioners want to finance with a special property tax. This service is one not needed elsewhere in the county or one needed at a higher level in the designated district than elsewhere in the county. The county service district is not a separate unit of government; it has no governing body. The services in the district are under the control and direction of the county commissioners. The management team that provides the services is made up of county employees.
County Water and Sewer District.
This is a separate unit of government governed by the board of county
commissioners. The sole reason for creating such a unit is to establish
a means of issuing general obligation bonds with the vote on bond issuance
confined to the district (in contrast to bonds for a county service district,
which must be approved by voters in the entire county). Because county
commissioners act as the governing body of the district, a county water
and sewer district has almost as much flexibility in providing wastewater
services as does a county government. However, the county's authority
to require connections does not extend to a system operated in
A major advantage of using a city or county
government as the management entity is that these units have authority
over both the management of wastewater systems and the regulation of land
use. Of all the management entities discussed here, only city and county
governments have general police powers and express authority to regulate
land use in the form of zoning, subdivision control, building inspections,
the establishment of historic districts, and
Five types of specially created governmental units are now authorized by general law in North Carolina. Four are separate and independent units once established, and they are discussed here. The fifth type, the county water and sewer district, is directed by the county commissioners because its members also serve as the district's governing board. For this reason it was classified earlier as one of the "direct management" entities.
All four special governmental units have the advantage of being focusedwater and sewer services are usually their principal functions. Thus they may center their attention on a single purpose. In general, all have more limited financial flexibility and less borrowing capacity than the counties in which they are located. They do not have the authority to regulate land use and development.
Sanitary District. A sanitary district is formed with the consent of a majority of the owners of real property and has an elected governing body. Most districts' major function is to provide water and sewer services, but they also are authorized to provide solid waste collection, fire protection, ambulance and rescue services, and mosquito control. Organization of a large area is difficult because a majority petition from landowners is required. With an elected board, the sanitary district is politically accountable in the same manner as a city or a county. Its financial resources are typically not as great as those of the county in which it is located.
Water and Sewer Authority. This entity is created by other governmental units, usually cities and counties, and is governed by a board whose members are appointed by the creating units. An authority does not have general taxing power and may not issue general obligation bonds but may issue revenue bonds. It may cover several jurisdictions or portions of jurisdictions. Its financing powers are extensive and include the authority to levy special assessments for improvements.
Metropolitan Water District. This district may be created by one or more political subdivisions, usually cities and counties, within a given county. It has appointed boards with the power to levy taxes and issue general obligation and revenue bonds; it may not impose special assessments. Like the water and sewer authority, it has no power to regulate land use and is authorized to provide only water and sewer services.
Metropolitan Sewer District. This agency is formed by cooperating political subdivisions, including unincorporated areas, and may cover more than one county or parts of more than one county. It is essentially the same type of organization as the metropolitan water district except that it may provide only sewer services. Thus it has truly special-purpose and single-purpose units. In providing sewer services, it has the same powers that metropolitan water districts possess with respect to rates and charges, taxing, and borrowing.
Private entities may be operated for profit or may be nonprofit. Each is established under general law. Two types of private entities are regulated public utilities and certified wastewater system operators. A major disadvantage of the for-profit corporations is that they are generally not eligible to receive state and federal grants directly. They may, of course, carry out public purposes under contracts with a public agency in most cases. Thus, for example, a county could contract with a private for-profit or nonprofit company to manage small wastewater facilities. As an alternative, the contract could call for the private entity to provide the facilities and also to operate and maintain them. The basic financial stability in this case would be based on both the fees and charges that the private organization might be allowed to impose, plus any additional support forthcoming from the county under the contract for services. For example, in some North Carolina counties landfills are owned and operated by private entities that provide services for county citizens under a contract with the county government.
Choice of a management organization must
ultimately depend on local needs and preferences. The type of management
entity required depends upon the maintenance needs of the septic system
(North Carolina Administrative Code, effective
Factors to consider in choosing a management entity include:
Public education and participation in decision
making are vital elements of any wastewater management program. The public
has a vested interest and an important role in wastewater management.
Technical solutions to wastewater problems are often available. Certain
social and economic obstacles, however, may limit implementation of technically
sound policies and management plans. Members of the public who should
be educated about and involved in wastewater management include homeowners,
developers, public officials, real estate professionals, and the business
community. Many of these citizens should also be encouraged to play an
expanded role in wastewater management decisions. Citizens may not, however,
fully understand or appreciate the complexity of wastewater management
alternatives and problems. Therefore, public support and cooperation requires
Wastewater management decisions often generate considerable public interest and potential controversy. Public concerns may be based on negative attitudes and incomplete knowledge. Public education and participation programs are most effective when based on adequate understanding of existing public attitudes and knowledge about the technical issues and policy alternatives. Such understanding can be gained through the public participation process itself. Local leaders need different types of information to make wastewater management decisions that are acceptable to a majority of local citizens. Better understanding of how different segments of the public perceive management alternatives leads to more effective technological solutions. Decisions are ultimately more acceptable to all parties involved if they fully understand the situation and have opportunities for participation.
The process of establishing a management
system in a county can either begin with the local health department or
with those citizens who will benefit most from the establishment of a
management entity. These management entities can be created by county
commissioners, by legislative act, or by petition of the resident landholders.
In any case, citizen input should be encouraged in the process of determining
the scope of the management entity's territory, powers, and responsibilities.
One management entity could serve residents in an entire county, or a
portion of the county. Also, several different management entities could
all function within
More sophisticated wastewater management will likely come at some increased cost. The owner of a septic system may have to pay a monthly bill similar to those on a municipal sewer system. Even if the management entity's fee structure employs a user fee and excludes direct costs to the taxpayers, caution must be exercised to determine whether the citizens may still be affected indirectly. For instance, if the management entity is a city or county, all citizens might assume some risk for the cost of replacing failing systems that were not maintained properly.
Another potential effect involves disruption of typical development patterns in a county if the management entity facilitates development in "unsuitable" areas. Because the suitability of a septic system site has often been used as an actual land use regulation, this could be an important issue to resolve before establishing a management entity.
There is substantial need for more sophisticated management of both on-site septic systems and small community wastewater treatment and disposal systems. While these systems are fairly easy to maintain, it is clear from recent studies that these systems have not always been maintained properly. Better management should facilitate more extensive use of complex technological options. There are a number of institutional management entities that can be used depending upon the needs and desires of the county or local community.
For more information about wastewater treatment
and disposal systems, contact your local health department or your county
Extension Center. You may also wish to obtain Cooperative Extension Service
publication in the AG-439 series, Septic System Options for Difficult
Sites, which describes a number of septic tank system modifications
and alternatives. Outline of Alternative Organizational Arrangements
for Providing Water and Sewerage Services in North Carolina, published
by the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina provides
more detailed information on the powers, authorities, and duties of the
institutional wastewater management options described here. For more information
on the public participation process, contact your county
The North Carolina Department of Environment,
Health, and Natural Resources (Division of Environmental Health), members
of the On-Site Sewage Program Advisory Committee, and local county Extension
and Health Department staff members provided technical review and