Being a customer of a wastewater system comes with both benefits and responsibilities. Some of the benefits include:

  • You do not have to keep a chamber pot under your bed.
  • You do not have to use an outhouse.
  • You do not have to spend thousands of dollars at one time to install individual wastewater collection and treatment such as a septic or aerobic system.

For those who may question the first two solutions to the wastewater problem, they were once very common means of relieving oneself, and both resulted in contamination of the environment and the spread of disease. Many unserved communities across the U.S. still do not have indoor plumbing, and outhouses can still be found in some rural communities that don’t have access to onsite systems. The third solution is still used widely in small communities and rural areas. When properly installed and maintained, these systems provide adequate waste treatment—although many times they are not properly installed or maintained, which leads to public and environmental health concerns. The responsibilities of belonging to a municipal wastewater collection and treatment system include:

  • Paying your bill on time so that the system can afford to be operated and maintained.
  • Maintaining your sewer cleanout by keeping the lid on and free of damage and not creating a connection between the sewer cleanout and your guttering downspout.
  • Only flushing items that can safely be flushed—“flushable” wipes are not, in fact, flushable.

While customers may realize the value of the drinking water system that brings much-needed water into their homes, no one wants to think about what goes out and, for that reason, many people are not aware of what is involved in keeping a wastewater system flowing smoothly. A municipal sewer system consists of many miles of wastewater collection line, maintenance holes, lift stations, and a treatment facility. Many customers are unaware of the importance of the wastewater collection system until there is a sanitary sewer overflow, a bypass, or a backup of sewage into their homes. While customers are usually willing to pay their water bills, they’re often unaware that it typically includes charges for treating their wastewater. The system relies on the revenues collected from all customers to pay the salaries of the employees who operate the system, purchase supplies, meet any debt repayment requirements, and save toward future replacement costs of lines, pumps, and other equipment.

Just because something can be flushed does not mean it should be. In systems across the country, countless hours are being spent clearing clogs caused by flushable wipes, which equates to millions of dollars in increased operational costs. Disposing of food through the garbage disposal, down the drain, or toilet increases the organic load on the treatment facility, increasing expenses. Pouring fats, oils, and grease (FOG) down the drain also increases the likelihood of clogged lines, causing sewage backups and increasing required operation and maintenance work. Being a good customer includes paying your bill on time, educating yourself about the system that serves you, and remembering the three Ps of flushing: pee, poop, and paper. Do not flush food, scraps, grease, feminine products, or flushable wipes.

The hot water running in the kitchen sink may clear the line from your house of any grease poured down the drain but, eventually, it cools off and leads to the blocking of a line. Fats and grease are hazardous and damaging to sewer collection lines, including those that you have to maintain yourself, such as from the system’s mainline to your home. If the clog forms in the line between your home and the wastewater collection system mainline, you will be responsible for the cost to remove the clog—sewer jetting equipment can be expensive, and the cost of water used to clear the lines also must be considered. A sewer cleanout placed on your service line enables a plumber to clear any clogs between the system’s mainline and your house but, while tying your guttering system downspout into the sewer cleanout may alleviate drainage problems in your yard, it may cause the system to have to increase rates for the
cost of enlarging the treatment facilities to treat rainwater.

Following these rules does not mean your rates will never increase, but it will keep costs down and help keep those increases reasonable and affordable. If possible, find out who manages and makes decisions about your wastewater system. Attend public meetings, listen to what is being planned, reports on the finances, and where the system stands with the state agency that oversees compliance with water quality standards. If the financial statements show large cash balances in the bank, it does not mean a rate adjustment will not be needed. Ask questions about what is planned for those reserves and why an increase in rates is required.

Consider what is covered by the bill you pay: salaries for operators who keep the system operating properly and in compliance and to office staff who handle the billing and collection of payments; utilities for pumping sewage from lift stations to treatment facilities; insurance coverage; maintenance and repairs; supplies; vehicle expenses; professional fees; and debt repayments. In addition to the costs of operating and maintaining the system and repaying any debt obligations, every system must consider replacing all of the parts that wear out over time. If rates are not reviewed for performance each year, then the amount charged for service may begin to fall short of that need. An annual increase tied to the Consumer Price Index at the very least is needed to ensure that rates keep up with inflation.

An asset management plan and a long-range replacement budget are necessary to plan for the costs of replacing pumps, motors, and other essential components of the system as the life of those assets draws to a close. An increase in salaries and benefits must also be considered to recruit quality employees and retain trained and competent staff. Over time, these salary increases may be less costly to the system than turnover and training costs. Everyone wants their rate to remain low, and a system should be operated efficiently and with little waste. However, making the budget work without a needed rate increase reduces the cash reserves available to fund emergency repairs or match grant funds for needed projects, and it puts the ability to provide service at risk.
Consider the value of the service that is provided to you. We all want to flush our toilets, feel confident that things will work as they should, and know that our environment is protected from contamination. Improperly treated wastewater can harm the environment and put the health of the public at risk. Many waterborne diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, have been eradicated through the installation of public wastewater treatment facilities. The operators of these systems are public health officials and work diligently to ensure that your health is protected.

Wastewater system customers may be unaware of all that is involved in operating a system properly and continuing to provide affordable service for many years to come. Many small, rural systems across the nation have kept rates artificially low without planning for the future impact on their customers and the system nearing the end of its life span. Municipalities and sewer boards face difficult decisions about rate increases, and those who have been applauded for keeping the rates low in the past may be looked at in a whole new light.

Gaylene Riley

Communities Unlimited
Oklahoma State Coordinator