In 2016, the town and school district of Marie, Arkansas, were both fined by the EPA for discharging untreated sewage. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) referred the town to Communities Unlimited for help. Though the population of Marie has declined to only 78, it is home to the region’s consolidated school system that has a growing number of more than 1,400 students. When the schools in the rural areas began consolidating in the 1970s, the high school was the only building on the campus, and a single-cell lagoon wastewater treatment system was set up to treat the sewage from the school. At that time, the small system was enough to handle their wastewater. But the additions of an elementary school, a middle school, and a new football stadium increased the amount of wastewater the school produces.

Untreated sewage is harmful to the environment, contaminates drinking water and exposes people to waterborne illnesses. The town needed to act quickly, but with so few residents, it had limited options. Communities Unlimited helped the town assess the possibilities. A treatment plant could be built, but the project would cost millions of dollars, which Marie could not afford. The school could have its own treatment system, but that would still cost several million dollars and would require proper management responsibility that the school was not interested in acquiring. A third option was to connect the school and Town of Marie to the larger neighboring town of Wilson. Wilson’s treatment plant could handle the additional sewage and was already well managed, but Wilson would be responsible for part of the cost of connecting the pipes. A connection like this is known as regionalization. It requires a lot of cooperation and compromise between all those involved in the town of Marie, the town of Wilson, and the school district.

Marie, Wilson and the school district all agreed. However, they still faced the challenge of paying for the pipes. The Town of Wilson was also concerned that the treatment capacity taken up by the school would not allow them room to grow, and in the future they would find themselves with the same problem as Marie. Wilson agreed to pay for 10% of the cost as long as the lagoon was expanded enough to meet the demands of future growth and the school district agreed to take on the rest of the loan debt. However, the original agreement between the three said that financing would not exceed $600,000, and the project was estimated at $750,000. This still left $150,000 that was needed to get the project underway.

Again, Communities Unlimited was there to help. They guided Marie through the grant application process for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) for the remaining $150,000, which included creating a System for Award Management registration account, or SAM, and applying for a Data Universal Number System (DUNS) account number — a process that alone took 60 days. Then in May 2019, after 3 years of non-compliance with the EPA, Marie received their grant award for $172,000 from the state revolving fund. This grant not only gave the project the $150,000 it was lacking, but also a $22,000 surplus for unexpected.

Otto Warhurst, who now acts as the system operator for all wastewater conveyance lines connecting Marie, Rivercrest School District, and Wilson, said,

“As the previous operator for Marie and mayor for Wilson, I have witnessed firsthand the issues that these towns have faced… Consolidating these systems will ensure proper attention is given to managing wastewater effectively.”