New partnership rescues septic systems from despair

When people move into neighborhoods with a new homeowner association, they may not know what they’re in for. It’s not just house colors and mailbox height. Sometimes it’s road maintenance and a neighborhood-wide sewage system.

That has led to major problems when homeowners are suddenly responsible for utilities with which they have no background. In some small neighborhoods, wastewater systems have been at risk of failing entirely.

“In most cases, they’re run by a homeowner association, where the developer created the homeowner association, turned the system over to the homeowner association, and now you have a bunch of people that just bought their houses, and now they have to run a sewer system,” said Jean Holloway, state manager for Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP).

Because the neighborhoods are private entities, they’re not eligible for municipal or nonprofit funding. Without professional help, they can simply flounder. They haven’t been required to have the same level of sewer connection as a municipality, so they basically had glorified neighborhood-wide septic systems.

Three nonprofit groups are now partnering to do the heavy lifting in Delaware. Clean Water Solutions (CWS) is a collaboration between Diamond State Sustainability Corp., EDEN Delmarva and SERCAP.

CSS will help small neighborhoods by taking over control of their wastewater systems, which can save everyone money. They own the system, take over billing and apply for grant funding to maintain the system.

The goal is to help “under-resourced communities, most of which are rural … or too far away from a community system to be connected easily or anytime in the near future,” Holloway said.

They estimate that, of about 165 community wastewater systems in Delaware, about 80 are “cluster” septic systems, where individual houses hook into a central drain field. Another third of them have technical, financial or managerial problems. Some systems have almost no money.

It was a well-kept secret that builders were turning over homeowner association (HOA) authority to the residents, but wastewater often became too difficult, expensive and complicated to maintain properly.

“These communities were left behind,” said D.C. Kuhns, founder of EDEN. “These are outside the reach of traditional county wastewater systems. … Once we transfer the assets, they’re under our purview. So we have control of the assets and are a nonprofit wastewater utility.”

The CWS partners don’t know for sure how many Sussex County communities fall into the category of needing help with their wastewater systems, but three pilot programs have begun locally, with three Sussex County developments of about 50 to 100 homes: Goats Way, Country Glen II and Morningside Village. CWS hopes to add another three neighborhoods by the end of 2017.

Each of CWS’s partners brings a different strength, whether fundraising, management or technical assistance.

It can be easier for an official agency to do billing, rather than neighbors requesting money of neighbors. The budget works on a split between 70 percent private foundations/grants and 30 percent community input.

“Up until now, this has been dogging [Delaware Department of Natural Resources], the USDA and other stakeholders for 20 years,” said Kuhns. “It’s been kind of buried under the rug, and this nonprofit organization … is the solution.”

“Most of these are bankrupt. … They have homeowners fighting with themselves. … It’s just a real mess. So we have to keep it economical or the problem will continue,” remarked Jerry Esposito, president of Tidewater Utilities.

About 11 percent of the nitrogen in Delaware’s inland bays could be attributed to such septic systems, they said.

They described the CWS program in May at the Second Annual Clean Water Forum, which Kuhns organized. He said he wants Delmarva waters to be as clean as when he was a young child vacationing with his family in “paradise,” a one-room fisherman’s shack in Dewey Beach.

“The water looked aquamarine green. It smelled fresh. … We could see all the creatures on the bottom because it was completely transparent,” Kuhns recalled. “I am motivated to use my influence and clean up the water. It’s going to take a generation,” he said, to fight for tributaries and waterways, so today’s grandchildren don’t have to.