Implementing (Waste)water Treatment Alternatives: A Comparative Case Study of Small Town Decision-making

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Moen, Julia Clare; Dufford, Courtney; Kim, Young-Eun (Amber)
wastewater; sewage; decision-making; stabilization ponds; constructed wetlands
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There is an urgent need for expanded wastewater treatment systems in small communities. In 2008, three billion gallons of untreated sewage were dumped into Minnesota's waterways. Of this total, 700 million gallons were generated by small communities. Constructed wetlands have been shown to be an effective, multi-purpose system to help address this treatment gap. However, the ways in which the local decision-making process impacts the implementation of these green infrastructure systems in small rural towns is unexplored in the literature. We thus undertake a comparative case study of the wastewater decision-making process in two most- similar towns in Southwest Minnesota: Pennock and Prinsburg. Pennock is a typical case that installed stabilization ponds, while Prinsburg is our case of interest for its implementation of a subsurface wetland system. Through an analysis of the decision-making process, we identify five major nodes of interaction that occur during this process: 1) internal organization, 2) choice of an engineering firm, 3) choice of a treatment system, 4) funding, and 5) implementation. When choosing a treatment system, we find that cost, odor, and aesthetics are the three major decision- making criteria valued by local decision-makers. We also find that the established precedent of using tried and true stabilization pond systems, as well as risk aversion in both regulatory agencies and private engineering firms constrain the choices available to local decision-makers. However, local decision-makers, to differing degrees depending on their capacity and their leaders, can explore alternatives like constructed wetlands if their objectives for the system are not being met by the traditional options. Lastly, placing wastewater treatment within the larger scope of water resource management may further facilitate innovation of sustainable alternatives to traditional management by encouraging towns to approach the problem with a more critical mindset than just resolving a compliance order.