UNC, Collaboratory, and state government partner to bring new wastewater treatment tech to local governments

The North Carolina state flag flies over the steps to South Building on the UNC campus.

Nestled high in the mountains of western North Carolina on the banks of the French Broad River, Hot Springs is emblematic of many of the state’s small communities.

Founded more than 200 years ago and home to 528 year-round residents, the town punches above its weight as a summer vacation hotspot thanks to its proximity to the river, the Appalachian Trail, Pisgah National Forest, and restorative natural mineral hot springs.

“Hot Springs has a great sense of community,” said Mayor Abigail Norton. “There is a feeling of belonging and connection that is also extended to visitors and tourists. We are a community of neighbors.”

Much like other communities across North Carolina, Hot Springs’s local economy is dependent on tourism driven by its natural resources. Protection and preservation of the river, local forests, and soils is important to the town, but aging infrastructure coupled with limited funding make for profound challenges.

“Some parts of the Hot Springs water system are approaching 100 years old, and the majority of the system is more than 50 years old,” said Keith Webb, vice president of civil engineering firm McGill Associates. “The sewer system is critical to the town and the citizens to protect the French Broad River and the local environment.”

These challenges are not unique to Hot Springs. In 2021, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a C- on its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The ASCE’s report estimates the cost of North Carolina’s needs related to drinking water and wastewater at a combined cost of $22.1 billion, according to the EPA. Communities across the state and country suffer from chronic underinvestment in water and wastewater utilities. For some, these needs are overwhelming.

With North Carolina’s small, rural, and environmentally sensitive communities in mind, N.C. Rep. Mark Brody (Anson, Union) found himself searching for possible solutions. He came across companies offering new technologies for on-site wastewater systems that could fit the bill. The problem—these systems were generally untested by governmental standards. Rep. Brody worked with collaborators to devise a program that would offer municipalities a treatment system with accompanying research to study the system and its implementation.

The result is the Highly Treated Wastewater pilot program, run through the North Carolina Collaboratory with assistance from the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) at the UNC School of Government. The program provides funding to five local governments in the state to replace and repair their wastewater treatment plants: Hot Springs, Lansing, Booneville, Maysville, and Ansonville.

The goals of the project are three-fold. First, it seeks to fund wastewater plant improvements for small, distressed, or capacity-burdened systems. It also aims to produce higher quality water leaving plants and entering streams and rivers, called effluent. Finally, it hopes to introduce the possibility of innovative technologies and systems for these treatment plants and assess the efficacy and resiliency of the systems through research.

“The benefit of this pilot is to put in place a commercially viable wastewater system that is affordable at the municipal level and exceeds the goals of the Clean Water Act,” Rep. Brody said. “Through this program, the municipality gets a desperately needed system and the public enjoys much cleaner water. We hope other pilots will follow so we can continue this effort and experiment with other important systems.”

Funding for the program came from the American Rescue Plan by way of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). Written and championed by Rep. Brody, the legislation aimed to assist communities that are considered distressed, have 10,000 or fewer customers, or lack sufficient treatment capacity to serve their populations. The NCGA appropriated $20 million to the Collaboratory, which partnered with EFC to implement the program. Funds cover not only the treatment facility upgrades, but research to assess the efficacy of the wastewater treatment and how towns can best use their resources to maintain new systems long-term.

“Many of our small communities in North Carolina are struggling to provide these basic public health services,” said Hope Thomson, project director at EFC. “It’s important for us to continue to invest in them. This project allows us to explore new ways of doing that work outside of traditional streams.”

Small and rural communities have much different capacity needs from larger and more densely populated urban areas. This pilot may help policymakers, researchers, and local leaders find achievable solutions for similar jurisdictions statewide.

“This program will help us understand how to improve wastewater treatment in a way that suits these small communities,” said Greer Arthur, research director for the Collaboratory. “This could provide a roadmap for similar towns across the state that need an economically feasible and resilient way to treat wastewater and safeguard their local environments.”

Participating communities were chosen through a pre-identification and application process. EFC established an advisory board that included NC Department of Envrionmental Quality (DEQ) staff from multiple divisions, representatives from the Rural Water Association, professors, and key stakeholders from organizations like the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the Rural Center. Following a vetting process, a handful of jurisdictions were invited to apply.

“We are very grateful for the participation and guidance from our advisory board members, especially our colleagues at DEQ,” Thomson said. “They’ve been instrumental in helping us get this pilot off the ground and in providing ongoing support.”

EFC’s breadth of experience working with local governments to manage environmental services in financially sustainable ways made them a logical partner in the program. The Center was recruited by the Collaboratory to facilitate communication between communities, DEQ, and other stakeholders. In this role, Thomson and her colleagues embody the ethos of the School: acting as a responsive, reliable partner for local governments.

“Our role allows us to funnel questions and communication between the community and the stakeholder,” Thomson said. “We want to make this program work for the needs of the community and find ways to sustainably launch better management of systems long-term.”

This role is particularly important when participating local governments are small and often under-resourced. The five pilot communities have an average population of 618, and all are in Tier 1 or Tier 2 counties. EFC’s participation gives each town a source of technical assistance as they apply for permits and construction begins. The Center will also contribute research on each community’s operational and financial capacity and will assist with planning for long-term maintenance of the plants.

“Every decision made considers whether it will be burdensome to the community, and how we can help them through the process,” Thomson said. “This is a rare opportunity to invest funds in a community and do research with them simultaneously. When you pair that research with direct technical assistance, it allows us to solve problems in real time and be responsive to their needs.”

In Fall 2023, the communities and engineering firms will enter a pre-construction phase including permit applications and construction bids. EFC will support this process and begin community-level research with town visits, interviews, and reporting assistance.

The project is one of four current or previous EFC projects funded by the Collaboratory. Other efforts include a completed project on flood resiliency in eastern North Carolina, ongoing work related to well and septic users in Wake County, and nutrient studies of Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.

The Environmental Finance Center at UNC is dedicated to enhancing the ability of governments and other organizations to provide environmental programs and services in fair, effective, and financially sustainable ways. It is located at the School of Government, which seeks to improve the lives of North Carolinians by engaging in practical scholarship that helps public officials and citizens understand and improve state and local government. Learn more at efc.sog.unc.edu.

The North Carolina Collaboratory is a research entity that partners with academic institutions and state agencies to transform research into practical information for use by State and local government. Since its authorization in 2016 by the legislature (see 31a N.C.G.S. §116-255), the Collaboratory has stewarded $148 million in appropriations from the General Assembly, investing in over 400 research projects across all 17 UNC System campuses and numerous NC-based private colleges and universities. Initially focused on natural resources and environmental issues, the Collaboratory has since broadened its portfolio to include research in some of the State’s most pressing challenges, including public health, education, clean energy, economic recovery, and technology development. The Collaboratory is committed to developing innovative, evidence-based solutions that serve the State and its residents.