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Strategic Framework for Unsewered Wastewater Infrastructure


The National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) was founded in 1992. Its principal purpose is to educate and serve its members and the public by promoting sound federal, state, and local policy, improving standards of practice, and advancing public recognition of unsewered wastewater infrastructure. To achieve this mission, NOWRA has developed and adopted a model framework to serve as a guide for future national policy on onsite systems and for NOWRA's programs and activities.

The Goal of the Model Framework

Achieve sustainable development while protecting human health and environmental quality.

NOWRA believes that attaining this goal will provide enduring opportunities to our members and enhance the quality of living for the public. Traditional “prescribed” models cannot achieve the goal of sustainability. In fact a “prescribed” model is detrimental to achieving such a goal because it largely ignores local environmental sensitivities and thwarts innovation. Furthermore, a "prescribed" model approach is unable to adequately balance human health and environmental protection with economic development pressures.

What Is the Model Framework?

The Model Framework contains critical components necessary to achieve the Goal. It is based on performance of all components affecting the onsite wastewater treatment system; performance of the treatment system, system owners, system practitioners (site evaluators, designers, installers, pumpers, operators, and regulators), and system regulatory agencies.

The Model Framework consists of seven components:

  1. Performance requirements that protect human health and the environment;
  2. System management to maintain performance within the established performance requirements;
  3. Compliance monitoring and enforcement to ensure system performance is achieved and maintained;
  4. Technical guidelines for site evaluation, design, construction, operation and acceptable prescriptive designs for specific site conditions and use;
  5. Education/training for all practitioners, planners, and owners;
  6. Certification/licensing for all practitioners to maintain standards of competence and conduct; and
  7. Program reviews to identify knowledge gaps, implementation shortcomings and necessary corrective actions.

Collectively, these elements constitute a total system capable of excellence in performance. Each element is important and must be included for the goal of sustainable development to be realized. Therefore, NOWRA is promoting this framework and each of the principles equally.

How The Elements Work

Performance Requirements: The Model Framework recognizes that onsite wastewater treatment systems are not 'disposal' systems but systems that discharge treated wastewater to ground and/or surface waters. This model also recognizes that sensitivities of water resources to treated wastewater discharges vary and that water quality standards, therefore, should reflect the specific site characteristics. Further, performance requirements must be specific and measurable to allow credible performance compliance monitoring of all systems. Methodologies for determining appropriate water quality performance requirements must be established by regulatory agencies based on risk management procedures.

System Management: To maintain system performance within the established performance requirements, perpetual management of all systems must be provided. Management may be provided by the owner or through third parties that may be private, quasi-public, public/private, or public. Ultimately, all treatment systems should be maintained on an equivalent basis. Perpetual management should be provided in a manner that the treatment system and its servicing is transparent to the user.

Compliance Monitoring and Enforcement: A governmental regulatory agency must have continuous oversight of the performance of all onsite wastewater treatment systems. The system owner (either property owner or management district) is responsible for maintaining compliance. Renewable operating permits issued to the responsible party (property owner, management district, or sanitary/utility district) by the governmental agency occurs only after acceptable performance is documented, and is the more reliable method of regulatory surveillance of performance.

Technical Guidelines: Guidelines for site evaluation, design, construction, and operation are critical aids to owners and practitioners to inform them of acceptable methods for achieving compliance with performance requirements. These should include prescriptive designs that are capable of meeting the performance requirements under specific site conditions and intended uses. However, they are only optional designs and are not intended to be required designs. Owners may submit alternative and/or innovative designs for approval provided the owner assures performance to meet the established requirements.

Education and Training: The most critical element to ensure that consistency is achieved is Education. Education of the public and college and technical school students is needed. Also, a training component to ensure that all practitioners are knowledgeable in standards of practice is essential.

Licensing/Certification: Licensing/certification of all practitioners is the fundamental link to maintain high standards of competence and conduct. Continuing education is a central tenet of this Model Framework for licensing and certification programs. The licenses/certifications should be limited in term but renewable following documentation of minimum continuing education requirements. Also, they must be revocable if the holder is found to be negligent or fraudulent.

Program Reviews: This Model Framework must be grounded in good science, engineering, appropriate statutory authorities and sound management practices. Shortcomings in the management programs must be identified to direct needed and appropriate research, enabling legislation, education, etc., necessary to implement appropriate corrective actions to achieve our goal of sustainable development.

NOWRA'S Direction

NOWRA intends that this Model Framework be advanced as the “national” ideal for building and maintaining an onsite wastewater infrastructure within the U.S. NOWRA is using this framework to identify and plan programs and actions that will be beneficial to its members and the public.

Adopted By the NOWRA Board of Directors and Membership, October 1999

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