The photo on the cover of the March edition of Rotary magazine is a close-up of raw sewage coming from a pipe into the yard of a rural home in Lowndes County, Ala. The cover title simply says, “Wasteland,” and includes the phrase, “How inadequate sanitation systems are failing rural America.”
The accompanying story is a profile of Catherine Coleman Flowers, who published a book last year about the problem of providing wastewater treatment — typically a septic tank — to the homes of low-income rural residents.
Flowers is correct that most people, including those in a position to do something about it, overlook the issue. She says it’s because wastewater treatment attention tends to go to cities, where there are a lot more residents, and usually more money, to build elaborate systems of pipes to direct sewage to a treatment plant. Unincorporated rural areas rarely get any similar aid.
Lowndes County, with a population of about 10,000 in the Black Belt of south-central Alabama, is an excellent example of an area where too many rural residents cannot afford improved wastewater facilities like a residential septic tank. One of them, a single mother named Pamela Rush whose mobile home did not have a septic tank, testified to a congressional committee about the issue in 2018. Flowers eventually brought U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to Rush’s home so he could see the problem for himself.
Perhaps getting the attention of a senator is one step toward improving things. But the magazine story makes it clear that there are other problems. Affordable housing is one: Rush (who died of the coronavirus last July) and her two children lived in a mobile home that Rush bought in 1995 and was still paying off.
Flowers runs a non-profit called the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. In the magazine interview she said she does not get hung up over conservative vs. liberal ideologies, but instead seeks help and ideas from anyone.
One of her allies in the past was Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who told Flowers he had grown up in poverty and had always wanted to figure out how to get more assistance to the rural poor. Flowers also has established a close relationship with conservative activist Robert Woodson, whose organization helps low-income people and neighborhoods solve problems.
Wastewater treatment problems surely exist in rural areas all over this part of Mississippi. Flowers said it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” issue, and it really is. It would require a survey of the treatment available in all rural homes to determine a county’s or a community’s need.
She also believes that wastewater treatment needs new solutions. “When people go into outer space, they can treat wastewater to make it drinking water,” she noted. “Why can’t we do that here on earth?”
Last year, Flowers received a $625,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for bringing overdue attention to rural wastewater treatment. There is much work to do.