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Two area groups join to study waste and waterways

WRC, Rich Earth Institute explore how village centers can reduce wastewater usage

To learn more about the Village Sanitation Pilot Study, contact the Rich Earth Institute at richearthinstitute.org.

BRATTLEBORO—Later this year, one village in Windham County will be chosen to get an in-depth education in what happens to their human waste and how it affects their region’s waterways.

The Rich Earth Institute and the Windham Regional Commission are working together on the Village Sanitation Pilot Study. In this program, officials with the Institute and the Commission will study one village, cluster, or neighborhood to assess the conditions of each household’s septic system and drinking water and explore options for improvement.

The nonprofit, EPA-funded REI, co-founded in 2012 by Kim Nace and Abe Noe-Hays, “engages in research, education, and technological innovation to advance the use of human waste as a resource in order to conserve water, prevent pollution, and sustain soil fertility.”

REI established the first community scale Urine Nutrient Reclamation Project in the country, which now has 100 donors diverting their urine away from septic and wastewater systems and — after pasteurization — onto local farms for use as fertilizer.

The village sanitation pilot study is a feasibility study, funded by WRC, The Canaday Family Charitable Trust, and other grants, said Nace.

“We’ll do site visits on each household,” said Nace, who noted the study isn’t about compliance or regulation. “It’s about assessment of the current situation only,” she said.

It will utilize GIS mapping, and could possibly include testing water samples from each home.

Once the study is complete, village residents will receive data on their systems and options for improving their septic and drinking water systems.

Free for the village

Nace pointed out the study is free for the village and the people in it, and they get to keep the information. But this project won’t provide any new facilities or infrastructure, Nace said.

That may come later, in a future pilot program.

“This is a really cool next step” for REI, said Nace, and it fits in with WRC’s goals, too.

Emily Davis, a planner with WRC, specializes in water quality and natural resources and is working with REI on the study.

But she said nearly all senior staff at WRC are helping move the project along, because it’s “relevant and important to many towns” in the county.

WRC Associate Director Susan McMahon noted the commission has been studying and addressing wastewater and drinking water infrastructure concerns since the 1990s. Nace said REI and WRC Executive Director Chris Campany have talked about working together on this topic for about five years.

“It’s all about village revitalization,” McMahon said.

“And sustainability,” Campany added.

With the state pushing for development in downtowns and cluster areas — and preserving farms, fields, and forests — what’s left out of the conversation, McMahon said, is what to do with wastewater and where to source drinking water.

Davis explained that there are regulations — with good reason — governing the distance between wells and septic systems. In clustered villages, sometimes there is simply no room for one more house, shop, or inn, because of incoming and outgoing water needs. Many areas, she noted, aren’t even in compliance with modern regulations.

“It’s a health issue,” McMahon said. And convincing people to use a urine diversion toilet or composting toilet “requires a significant cultural shift,” Campany said.

In many communities, “there’s only one option for wastewater treatment: a centralized plant, which is very expensive, and provides a financial barrier to a town and its taxpayers,” Davis said.

“There is no precedent for this type of study, especially in Vermont village centers,” Davis said. Both REI and WRC are figuring it out together, she said.

“We at Windham Regional are really excited to work with Rich Earth,” Davis said. “They have the study models. And we have the institutional knowledge about community needs and structures.” Both organizations are interested in nutrient management and water quality concerns.

Selection process

In January, REI and WRC contacted Selectboards and Planning Commissioners to announce the study, and they asked for letters of intent from interested parties. The letters included the number of participating households and why this community is a good candidate for the study.

Davis fielded those inquiries, and so far she has arranged presentations in the towns where officials responded with the strongest interest: Dummerston, Londonderry, and Westminster West.

There’s still time to apply, Davis said. But Nace encourages potential study subjects to hurry up. “Get on it soon!” she said. The deadline is in May, and Nace and Davis will announce the winner in early June.

Only one village will be chosen, said Nace, because REI has the resources to comprehensively study one village.

“This has the potential to really impact our communities, and we want to get this right,” Davis said.

Nace noted this model can be used “all over the country.” Nutrient contamination of waterways “is happening everywhere,” she said. “Centralized sewage is a dinosaur.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #454 (Wednesday, April 11, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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