Management, Economics and Policy

Update of the Advanced On-Site Wastewater Treatment and Management Market Study

Publication Date: March 2010
Cooperating Institution: Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment (CAWT)
Principal Investigator: Valerie Nelson
Project Budget: $207,604
Project Identifier: 05-DEC-3SG


This research developed a series of four documents as an update to the Advanced On-Site Wastewater Treatment and Management Market Study conducted in 2000. The documents include:

Advanced Decentralized Wastewater Systems: Updated Strategies for Expanded Use (White Paper)
In the year 2000, a report assessing the short-term opportunities and long-term potential for “advanced onsite wastewater technologies and management” was completed by the Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment (CAWT). At the time a series of market drivers and federal actions appeared to offer great promise for expanded use of advanced technologies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had asserted that adequately managed onsite systems could be considered a permanent part of the infrastructure and could obviate the need for expensive sewer construction. Problems of aging infrastructure, inadequacy of conventional septic systems, pollution in environmentally-sensitive water bodies, and other issues could be addressed productively through the application of innovative decentralized approaches.

Through updated research on activities in each of the fifty states, this study has found that most of the market opportunities identified in the earlier work have not been realized. Successes have included the greater use of managed cluster systems in new home construction and the use of advanced onsite systems in a few leading states such as Rhode Island and Washington. Nevertheless, the percentage of the U.S. population connected to sewers has increased from about 77% to 80%.

In large part, lack of deep market penetration can be attributed to ineffective strategies by industry leaders and by government. Strong coalitions for institutional change were not forged, standards were not a high priority, and mistakes were made in understanding the structure of viable management entities. Ultimately, the challenge of change in a fragmented market of fifty states with different institutional and regulatory structures may have been too great for the industry to manage.

This White Paper updates the findings and conclusions of the earlier study and incorporates lessons and insights from a series of planning and research workshops convened by the National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project (NDWRCDP) and CAWT from 2000 to 2009. Strategies for expanded use of advanced decentralized designs include updates to recommendations from the earlier study:

  • Greater collaboration of decentralized industry leadership with federal and state governments, engineers, environmental organizations, planners, scientific researchers, architects, energy specialists, ecologists, and others;
  • Advocacy for high standards of practice, technology performance, management;
  • Targeting of innovation to meet the nation’s pressing needs for preserving and restoring water quality and quantity and healthy cities and towns, in particular through water reuse, nutrient removal, energy recovery, and green building.

In addition, the following new strategic initiatives are suggested:

  • Piloting of integrated water, wastewater, reuse, stormwater, energy, and other resource designs and management at the building and neighborhood scales;
  • Development of learning and outreach programs for change agents across the country to have access to information and tools for decentralized approaches;
  • Advocacy for progressive governance in several promising states and for renewed federal leadership in research, funding and regulatory reform.


Update of the Advanced On-site Wastewater Treatment and Management Market Study: State Reports Summary
An update of a study of the market for distributed wastewater technologies and management, originally completed between 1997 and 2000, was conducted to provide updated information about the status of regulations, management, technology use, funding, training programs, and research and demonstration projects in each of the fifty states. A state-by-state literature review was completed and reports were updated for each of the 50 states.

The research revealed a decade of both incremental progress and missed opportunity. More decentralized systems are under management as compared to the late 1990s, and advancements in industry professionalism are continuing. In some areas, acceptance of advanced treatment systems corresponded with understanding of ongoing maintenance needs, and with implementation of management entities and programs. In others, adoption of advanced technology without adequate management resulted in environmental impacts and negative perceptions of decentralized systems. Future federal research and demonstration funding is uncertain, and the sector is losing capacity due to recent economic conditions and over-reliance on new housing development.


Update of the Advanced On-site Wastewater Treatment and Management Market Study: State Reports
This document includes the State Reports and annotated references for each state.


Case Studies: Building Blocks for Decentralized Wastewater
Across the United States, researchers, private companies, advocates, and state regulatory agencies are coming up with innovative ways to advance the decentralized wastewater treatment approach. These successes represent “building blocks” for future success in the sector. This document highlights several case study examples including:

  • In Michigan, a non-profit organization builds broad coalitions to tackle issues related to public health, decentralized systems, and water quality.
  • In Rhode Island, planners, regulators, and researchers work together to connect land use planning and wastewater management planning.
  • In Minnesota, funders mandate an alternatives analysis process that ensures decentralized solutions are considered fairly by engineers and others.
  • In Massachusetts, regulators administer a clear, fair process for approving new onsite wastewater treatment technologies.
  • In North Carolina, engineers and developers are working under risk-based reuse regulations to integrate distributed wastewater with stormwater and other water treatment and reuse systems.
  • In Tennessee, privately owned, publicly regulated utilities provide full-service management for development-scale distributed wastewater treatment systems.