BRATTLEBORO — The Rich Earth Institute (REI) and the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) recently announced the regions that will participate in a new wastewater study.
In a slight plot twist, two neighborhoods - West Dummerston and Westminster West - were selected for the Village Sanitation Pilot Study, instead of one community, as originally planned.
REI and the WRC announced the pilot project earlier this year. The two entities contacted selectboards and planning commissioners in area towns to announce the study and to seek letters of intent from interested. Applicants for the pilot study were asked to specify the number of participating households and to explain why their community would be a good candidate.
In this program, researchers with the two organizations will study the respective localities to assess the conditions of each household's septic system and drinking water and explore options for improvement.
“Our village centers are cultural and commercial centers of our communities, but small lot sizes make on-site wastewater system maintenance and upgrades challenging, and expansion nearly impossible,” says a WRC news release.
“One of the goals of this effort is to explore the extent to which innovative sanitation technology that diverts urine from the wastewater stream can be a part of the solution to on-site wastewater treatment problems and challenges in village settings.”
According to the project organizers, “waste that would normally be flushed into a septic tank is instead collected through a simple but elegant and clean system that diverts waste for use by local farms who volunteer their pastureland for application.”
The result is better on-site wastewater management, fewer nutrients and bacteria finding their way into ground and surface water, and a source of fertilizer for local pastures.
The program comes at no cost to the participants and is completely voluntary.
The nonprofit, REI, co-founded in 2012 by Kim Nace and Abe Noe-Hays and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “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 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.
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.
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,” WRC Water Quality Planner Emily Davis said. “There is no precedent for this type of study, especially in Vermont village centers.”
Studying the current situation
As part of the Village Sanitation Pilot Project, “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.
The project will use GIS mapping and could 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.
According to the news release, “The feasibility study will test, at a neighborhood scale, innovative wastewater solutions which can help address aging septic systems that impact both the environment and homeowner wallets.”
At the end of the competitive process to choose the location for the study, West Dummerston emerged as the first choice because of an “impressive submitted letter, the number of participating homeowners in the neighborhood, and the clear and demonstrated need for this kind of study in the 2018 Dummerston Town Plan,” the news release said.
That plan warns that “to encourage compact settlement in the Village, the Town needs to consider current restraints created by inadequate water and septic needs.”
But the enthusiasm shown by Westminster West's residents also moved officials with REI and WRC to expand the program.
“Westminster West neighbors had organized with the Living Earth Action [Group] and had included three community buildings into their study, thereby making a clear statement of community readiness for and commitment to this innovative work,” says the news release.
Different landscape settings, different data
By including both villages in the study, WRC and REI can gain valuable research data from two very different landscape settings, which will make the study more helpful statewide.
As the news release points out, West Dummerston is located in a narrow valley along the West River. Westminster West is situated away from waters of the Connecticut River, near marshes, fields, and forests.
At the June 20 Dummerston Selectboard meeting, where the board announced West Dummerston's participation in the study, Board Chair Zeke Goodband said, “I think the information they get will be useful to all and helpful to all the residents there.”
“We hope to use the VSPS as a way to begin a statewide conversation about incorporating green infrastructure and nutrient-cycling methods into community wastewater planning, all while supporting the very real planning needs of these two communities,” Davis said in the news release.