Strategies for Rural Development in Areas with Limited Public Infrastructure: Alternative Septic Systems

Background Science and Literature

Decentralized water supply and wastewater disposal alternatives can help Maine communities achieve their development density goals while maintaning traditional New England village land use patterns. Decentralized water supplies and wastewater treatment systems can be constructed both in existing developed neighborhoods, and in areas of new development through the use of onsite and clustered septic systems for residential and commercial wastewater treatment and dispersal.

Eg. development that combines cluster housing with offsite wastewater disposal technology.These onsite and clustered systems protect public health and safety with  state-mandated minimum offsets from drinking water supplies and water resources, and the risk of system failure is practically zero if they are properly planned, installed, operated, and maintained. When managed properly, these systems can also maintain private property values, preserve tax bases, produce life-cycle cost savings, and further Maine’s goals for compact development in growth areas, preservation of large tracts of open space, and sensible land use planning and development practices throughout the state. Current state regulations, recent technology improvements (including management information system technologies for community septic systems), and new management models give development planners and designers more options for generating high returns on investment while meeting all public health and environmental goals.

This document provides references and website links for further research on strategies for rural development in areas lacking public sewer and water service. The references are organized first by general topic, then alphabetically by author within each topic.

Waste Water Treatment Technologies and Processes

Dow, David and G. Loomis. May 1998. Shared Septic Systems; A shared sand filter and drain field was the least expensive solution for a difficult site. Journal of Light Construction, Vol. 16, No. 7.

Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems: on-line resources provided by the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment (online at

This on-line resource contains readable explanations of onsite waste water treatment in Barnstable County, Massachusetts including an owners guide, contract requirements, an alternative septic test center, and ways to manage. 

US Environmental Protection Agency.  Septic (Onsite/Decentralized) Systems. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Online at 

This on-line resource contains case studies and demonstration projects, education and outreach materials, technical information and links to funding resources and training centers.

In 2012, the EPA Decentralized MOU Partnership developed four short papers for state, local, and tribal government officials as well as interested stakeholders, which include information on the uses and benefits of decentralized wastewater treatment and examples of where they have played an effective role in a community's wastewater treatment infrastructure. These papers include an introductory paper as well as three papers detailing the economic, environmental, and public health related aspects of decentralized wastewater treatment.

National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC) and Small Flows Quarterly magazine are premier sources of information on wastewater treatment and management.

Septic System Performance and Potential Impacts

Bicki and Brown, 1991. On-Site Sewage Disposal: The Influence of System Density on Water Quality, Journal of Envi- ronmental Health, March/April 1991.

This paper is a compilation of several previous studies relating onsite system density to groundwater and surface water sampling. At the time, the paper concluded that a lot size necessary to prevent contamination is approximately one-half to one acre.

Frenzel, S.A., and C.S. Couvillion. 2002. Fecal-Indicator Bacteria in Streams Along a Gradient of Residential Development, Journal of the American Water Resources Association 38(1): 265-273.

The authors performed fecal-indicator bacteria sampling at 14 stream locations in Anchorage, Alaska as part of a study to determine the effects of urbanization on water quality. They found that areas served by centralized sewer systems had significantly higher fecal-indicator bacteria concentrations than did areas served by septic systems, although the source of the bacteria could not be determined.

Pizor, P.J., G.H. Nieswand, and R.M. Hordon. 1984. A Quantitative Approach to Determining Land Use Densities from Water Supply and Quality. Journal of Environmental Management 18:49-56.

This article presents a quantitative method for making a specific linkage between the volume and quantity of water available in an area and recommended lot size. The method may apply to areas serviced by infrastructure or by onsite septic systems and wells.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Geological Survey. 1999. Residential Septic System Impacts on Groundwater Quality in Maine, Part I, Characterization of Nitrate Concentrations in Domestic Wells at 18 Subdivisions. Executive Summary available online at Paper copies of Parts I and II may be obtained by e-mailing

The investigators conducted a survey of nitrate-nitrogen concentrations in domestic wells in 18 unsewered subdivisions to determine the possible impact of onsite septic systems on groundwater quality. The study concluded that the Maine Subsurface Wastewater Disposal Rules are adequately protecting residential wells from nitrate-nitrogen contamination caused by conventional septic systems.

Maine Rural Water Association.  Best Management Practice for Groundwater Protection: A Guide for Public Water Suppliers and Local Officials, prepared for Maine State Drinking Water Program, September 30, 2003

Thomas, M.A. 2000. The Effect of Residential Development on Groundwater Quality Near Detroit, Michigan. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 36(5): 1023-1038.

Two water-quality studies were conducted on the outskirts of the Detroit metropolitan area to determine how recent residential development has affected groundwater quality. The greatest influence on groundwater quality appeared to be from septic system effluent (domestic sewage, household solvents, and water-softener back- wash) and infiltration of stormwater runoff from paved surfaces (road salt and fuel residues). The effects of human activities were apparent in 76 percent of young (shallow) waters tested at depths below 25 feet (Michi- gan’s current minimum well depth requirement).

Van Cuyk, S., R. Siegrist, A. Logan, et al. 2001. Hydraulic and Purification Behaviors and Their Interactions During Wastewater Treatment in Soil Infiltration Systems. Water Research 35(4): 953-964.

Four three-dimensional soil lysimeters were established in a pilot laboratory, and were dosed with septic tank effluent in order to investigate the dynamic, interactive processes that occur in the disposal fields of onsite systems. Media utilization and effluent retention times (as measured by using a bromide tracer) increased during the first two months of operation, gradually increasing to two days or more. Purification processes were gradually established over four or more months, after which there were high removal efficiencies for organic constituents, microorganisms, and virii, but only limited removal of nutrients.

Weiskel, P.K., B.L. Howes, and G.R. Heufelder. 1996. Coliform Contamination of a Coastal Embayment: Sources and Transport Pathways. Environmental Science & Technology 30(6): 1872-1881.

The investigators conducted seasonal measurements of fecal coliform sources and transport pathways contrib- uting to fecal coliform contamination of Buttermilk Bay, a shallow embayment adjacent to Buzzards Bay, MA. Onsite disposal of sewage was the single largest fecal coliform source in the watershed-embayment system, but due to attenuation during subsurface transport, only a minute fraction reached bay waters. Instead, surface water ?ows, via storm drains and natural streams, contributed the major terrestrial input. Management practices in similar settings should account for migratory waterfowl, but remediation efforts should focus on the redirec- tion of stormwater runoff through the groundwater transportation pathway.

Weiskel, P.K., and B.L. Howes. 1992. Differential Transport of Sewage-Derived Nitrogen and Phosphorus through a Coastal Watershed. Environmental Science & Technology 26(2): 352-360.

Changes in land use in coastal watersheds to residential development with onsite sewage disposal represent a potential change in both the quantity and quality of nutrient impacts to coastal marine systems. Though a minor source of phosphate to the receiving waters of the study area, septic effluent is a potentially major source of dissolved nitrogen to coastal waters. Where marine or estuarine systems are nitrogen-limited, septic systems may contribute substantially to eutrophication.

Wilhelm, S.R., S.L. Schiff, and W.D. Robertson. 1996. Biogeochemical Evolution of Domestic Waste Water in Septic Systems: 2. Application of Conceptual Model in Sandy Aquifers. Ground Water 34(5): 853-864.

Aqueous geochemical data from unconfined sand aquifers beneath two operating domestic septic systems were used to illustrate and evaluate a conceptual model of septic system geochemistry.

Choosing Options at the Community Level

Several states in the northeast United States, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have mandated that local communities have plans in place for managing decentralized waste water systems. This section includes reports from communities in these states that have succesfully gone through their own assessment processes to develop plans and programs:

Chateauneuf, R.J. 2002. Onsite Wastewater Management Approaches in Rhode Island. Paper presented at the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission 2002 Short Course and Exhibition. Available by contacting NEIWPCC at (978) 323-7929.

This paper describes the various state and municipal onsite waste water management approaches being employed in Rhode Island to protect natural resources and to help restore resources that appear to be impaired due at least in part to the effects of onsite systems. Three case studies are presented that highlight approaches and driving forces affecting regulatory and policy changes in the Rhode Island onsite arena.

National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project (NDWRCDP), 2002. Application of a Risk- Based Approach to Community Wastewater Management: Tisbury, Massachusetts. NDWRCDP, Washington University, St. Louis, MO (WU-HT-00-26).

This report provides risk assessment tools for protection of a community drinking water supply, freshwater pond, and coastal embayments using nitrogen modeling.

National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC), 2003. Small Community Wastewater Solutions: A Guide to Making Treatment, Management and Financing Decisions (#FMBKGN210). Available by order via e-mail from  nsfc_orders@mail. or by phone at (800) 624-8301.

The book is a comprehensive guide to making community waste water treatment decisions. It aims to help property owners become critical thinkers with respect to the information, concerns, and recommendations that will surface as they begin the process of solving their waste water problems. It also provides the tools small communities need to access this data and to make independent, informed judgments and choices.

Schwartz, J.J., A.B.Waterman, A.T. Lemley, L.P. Wagenet, P. Landre, and D.J. Allee. 1998. Homeowner perceptions and management of private water supplies and wastewater treatment systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 53(4):315-319.

A study in three counties in upstate New York showed that an average of one-third to the homes using wells or springs for their water supply tested positive for an indicator bacteria. Most of the respondents had never previously tested their drinking water, and of those with septic systems, one-third had never had their septic tanks pumped. In spite of these problems, most respondents said that they were satisfied with their water sup- ply. More educational programs are needed, as is research into what things influence how homeowners manage their water supplies and septic systems.

University of Rhode Island, Civil and Environmental Engineering. 1994. Wastewater Management Guidance Manual for Non-Sewered Communities. Available from Office of Environmental Coordination, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Web Resources

National Agricultural Library,, Water Quality Information Center (WQIC) provides publications, searchable databases, and other water-related services.

National Drinking Water Clearinghouse (NDWC), online at is a national clearinghouse on water related topics. They also publish OnTap, a free publication with drinking water news for small communities.

Water Resources Publications (WRP) is a company specializing in publishing and distributing books and software about water resources. Online at

Decentralized Wastewater Management Options

Following are papers and reports discussing decentralized waste water management from a variety of perspectives, including national references and planning papers and implementation guides at the state and local levels from different parts of the country:

Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Watershed Management Section, 1999. Assessing Wastewater Options for Small Communities in Kansas. Available by calling 1-785-296-4195.

Provides a comprehensive overview of both planning and implementation phases of a successful decentralized waste water management system or program. Focuses primarily on clustered or larger-scale decentralized systems, but provides an entire chapter on funding methods and mechanisms.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Voluntary National Guidelines for Management of Onsite and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Treatment Systems, EPA 832-B-03-001, March 2003.

The Voluntary Guidelines were developed to raise the level of performance of onsite and clustered waste water treatment systems through improved management programs. The five management models or levels are described, and their application to local conditions is briefly discussed.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Handbook for Management of Onsite and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Treatment Systems, EPA 832-D-03-001, February 2003, Updated 2010. Accessed online at

EPA has developed a Management Handbook to complement the Voluntary National Guidelines discussed above. The Handbook is an implementation guide containing case studies, detailed discussions and supplementary material to assist states and communities in implementing the management guidelines.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Water Quality Inventory: 1996 Report to Congress, EPA 841-R-97-008, 1998. Accessed online at, November 13, 2003.

This report informs Congress and the public about general water quality conditions in the United States. This document characterizes water quality, identifies widespread water quality problems of national significance, and describes various programs implemented to restore and protect the nation’s waters.

Electronic Tools for Management Assistance

Following are product websites for several electronic database tools used to manage decentralized systems.

•     SepTrack:

•     SepticPlanner:

•     Integrated Wastewater Information Management System:

•     Computer Aided Septic System Tracking:

•     Carmody Waste Recording Services:

Land Use Planning and Decentralized System Options

Following are references relating to land use and “smart growth” aspects pertinent to the use of small community waste water systems:

American Planning Association, 1998.  The Principles of Smart Development, PAS Report No. 479, APA: Chicago, Ill.

Not specific to community waste water disposal systems, but good background on lot configurations for traditional styles of development.  See pp. 19-24.

American Rivers, NRDC, and Smart Growth America, 2003. Paving Our Way to Water Shortages: How Sprawl Aggravates Drought

This paper ties development uses to water shortages, stormwater, impervious surfaces, etc., and how using smart growth principles can help alleviate the problems.

Arendt, Randall, 1994. Rural by Design, American Planning Association: Chicago, Ill.

An important reference work on small town development and open space zoning and preservation. See chapter 3, Sewage Disposal, for a discussion of the design and use of common waste water disposal systems. August 1992; also available at

Bicki, Thomas J., and Brown, Randall B., 1991. “On-Site Sewage Disposal: The Influence of System Density on Water Quality,” Journal of Environmental Health, March/April 1991

Calthorpe, Peter, 1993.  The Next American Metropolis, Princeton Architectural Press: New York, N.Y.

A leading reference work on traditional neighborhood development.  Includes a chapter on ecology and habitat, in which Calthorpe argues for use of onsite waste water treatment facilities that use biological systems to reclaim water.

Campoli, Humstone and MacLean, 2002. Above and Beyond; Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas, American Planning Association, Chicago, Ill.

Provides visual examples of the incremental changes from rural to suburban areas, and their impacts on fragmenting natural and community resources.

Duany, Andres and Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth, 1991.  Towns and Town-Making Principles, Rizzoli International Publications, Boston, MA.

Provides examples of two newly designed “rural villages” in Maryland, pp. 26-37.

Ewing, Reid, 1996.  Best Development Practices, American Planning Association: Chicago, Ill.

Good discussion of cluster development as a best land use practice, advocating for “small housing clusters.” See especially pp. 25-27.

Fader, Steven, 2000.  Density by Design: New Directions in Residential Development, Urban Land Institute: Washing- ton, D.C.

Not specific to community waste water disposal systems, but includes case studies of single-family detached subdivisions in suburban settings.  Offers a sense of the design options possible if a development of suburban lots away from public sewers is freed from the constraint of conventional on-site septic systems.

Heart, Bennett, et. al., 2002.  Community Rules: A New England Guide to Smart Growth Strategies, Conservation Law Foundation and Vermont Forum on Sprawl.

Does not directly address community waste water systems, but a New England-oriented guidebook for traditional forms of development in which community systems probably must play an important role.

Nelessen, Anton Clarence, 1994.  Vision for a New American Dream: Process, Principles, and an Ordinance to Plan and Design Small Communities, American Planning Association: Chicago, Ill.

A leading reference on small town traditional neighborhood development.  In his section on Ecological Responsibility (pp. 141-152), Nelessen addresses small community waste water systems that enable the development of traditional neighborhoods in towns without public sewer systems.

Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, Subdivision Model Ordinance. Available at  8-7-2007.

Contains model ordinance language for Maine's subdivision regulations.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Model Ordinances to Protect Local Resources: Open Space Development”. Accessed online at on June 27, 2003.

Contains model ordinance language for open space development, including sections for design standards, open space requirements, and management. Also contains links to other aspects of local resource protection as it pertains to non-point source pollution control.

Waste Water Treatment System Design (Textbooks)

Bedinger, M.S., J.S. Fleming, and A.I. Johnson, eds. 1997. Site Characterization and Design of On-Site Septic System. Fredericksburg, VA: American Society of Testing and Materials.

Symposium proceedings; contains papers under the subjects of system operation and evaluation, system site characterization and design, and alternative systems components and design.

Burks, B.D., and M.M. Minnis. 1994. Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems. Madison, WI: Hogarth House, Ltd.

An easily readable, comprehensive text that discusses both the science and the engineering of onsite systems. Contains chapters on site evaluation, system design, treatment alternatives, and land use management.

Crites, R. and G. Tchobanoglous. 1998. Small and Decentralized Wastewater Management Systems. Boston: WCB/Mc- Graw-Hill.

A premier engineering text for the design of decentralized treatment systems.

Metcalf & Eddy Inc. 1991. Wastewater Engineering Treatment, Disposal and Reuse, Third Edition.  New York: Mc- Graw-Hill, Inc.

An important reference text on wastewater treatment system design, although it is not specific to small or decentralized systems.

Related Work Plan Components


Workgroup Contacts

In Aroostook County: Jay Kamm, Ken Murchison, Joella Theriault

In Washington County: Judy East