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TNWRRC Awarded $1M to Support Rural Wastewater Systems

Every time you take a shower, clean the dishes, or flush a toilet, the mixture of soaps, oils, food scraps, human waste, and cleaning chemicals—known as wastewater—travels down the drain to a wastewater treatment plant. After the solids are removed, the treated water is released back into a receiving stream, like a river or other natural waterway.

Unfortunately, many small and rural communities throughout the country have degraded or undersized wastewater management systems, which can lead to sewage backups during rainstorms and the release of pollutants into the environment.

“Our wastewater infrastructure, like much of our other civil infrastructure, is aging and requires proactive maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement,” said Steven Hoagland, a researcher and program manager at UT’s Tennessee Water Resources Research Center (TNWRRC). “Due to their relatively smaller customer bases, small and rural wastewater systems are faced with the additional challenge of addressing their aging infrastructure with a limited budget.”

John Schwartz headshot

The TNWRRC is a federally designated state research center housed within the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE). The center, directed by CEE Professor John Schwartz, cooperates with government agencies and nonprofit organizations to identify and address key water issues facing Tennessee.

Earlier this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted the TNWRRC $1 million to help rural communities in Tennessee fund vital improvements to their wastewater infrastructure systems.

Achieving Financial Sustainability

While there are programs that offer financial assistance for wastewater system improvements, such as the low-interest loans available through the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) Program, small communities often lack the time, resources, and expertise to effectively access those options. Hoagland says a critical barrier to funding access is the lack of asset management and financial sufficiency plans.

water treatment system

An asset management plan delineates the resources in a wastewater system and the level of service it needs to provide, but also lets a community evaluate system vulnerabilities and plan for regular maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of critical components.

A financial sufficiency plan is a community’s codified strategy to fund future system improvements, which can be done through both rate increases and external funding opportunities like the SRF.

“Asset management and financial sufficiency plans can help small and rural wastewater systems work toward both operational and financial sustainability and resilience,” Hoagland said.

Over the next three years, the TNWRRC’s initiative will provide training and technical assistance to small and rural communities across the state of Tennessee, teaching community partners how to develop and maintain asset management and financial sufficiency plans.

Qiang HeWorkshops on developing those plans, and detailing available funding options like the CWSRF, will be led by Hoagland, Schwartz, CEE Professor Qiang He, UT Institute of Agriculture Associate Professor Sreedhar Upendram, Professor Larry Moore from the University of Memphis, and Associate Professor Tania Datta from Tennessee Tech.

The trainings will help system operators, managers, and board members in small and rural communities manage their wastewater systems effectively and sustainably—and put them in a better position to make future improvements through external funding opportunities.

“We also hope that improving the management of these systems will translate into other indirect impacts,” Hoagland said, “such as improving knowledge transfer between utility staff, reducing operational costs, and improving the water quality of receiving streams throughout the state.”


Izzie Gall (865-974-7203,