Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA6

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Improving Small Community Wastewater Treatment

Before making a major decision about sewage facilities in an area without a public sewage system, it's necessary to collect information about the community. This study indicated that trained local officials can collect community information effectively using face-to-face interviews. The response rates achieved by the local officials compare well to those reported by investigators using university researchers or other professionals to conduct the surveys.

Karen Mancl
Associate Professor and Extension Water Quality Specialist
Agricultural Engineering
Ohio State University- Columbus

Making decisions about public sewage facilities for small towns and rural communities can be expensive and confusing. It's especially difficult for community leaders to make informed decisions when they don't have a complete understanding of what the community needs.

People who live in a community can supply important information for planning sewage facilities. While the residents may not know a great deal about the operation of their present home sewage system, they can supply information on home size and age, family size and income, water use, and their attitudes toward improving public wastewater treatment in their community. Some residents can also supply information on their current home sewage system type, age, location, and performance.

Other investigators have reported on the use of public meetings, referenda, mail questionnaires, telephone surveys, and face-to-face interviews to collect survey information in small communities.1 The data in each of these studies were collected by state agency officials, consultants, or university researchers.

As part of Ohio State Extension's water quality program, a study was conducted in 1989 and 1990 to determine if local officials would be an appropriate group to conduct surveys. We believed personal involvement in data collection would be one way to promote "ownership" of a community problem by local officials. In addition, door-to-door collection by local officials would give the residents a chance to voice their concerns directly to one of their elected representatives, thus helping them in their decision making about sewage facilities.


A survey instrument was developed and used to gather information in small Ohio communities without public sewer systems. The entire survey has been published by Mancl.2 Face-to- face interviews, as described by Ary, Jacobs, and Razavieh,3 are well-suited for collecting sewage facilities' information in small communities. Interviews are flexible, allowing the interviewer to make observations as well as collect responses to questions. Questions can be repeated and explained in cases where they aren't understood. Interviews generally require minimal work for the respondents, who aren't required to read or write anything, only respond verbally to the questions. Interviews are usually more complete and accurate than written questionnaires because the interviewer's main job is to ask the questions in a way to obtain responses. Interviews also tend to have higher completion rates than written questionnaires. While interviews require a good deal of interviewer time, they don't require expenditures for postage and envelopes as do mail questionnaires. In a small community, the costs incurred in conducting interviews is minimal.

Local officials from Ohio three communities (Brandt, Nettle Lake, Ayersville) volunteered to conduct the survey following their participation in an Extension workshop entitled "Wastewater Treatment Alternatives for Small Rural Communities."4 Training potential interviewers is essential.5 Local officials in this study were required to participate in an Extension training session on how to conduct the survey and compile the results. The two-hour training included a discussion of interview tips, a "mock" interview, careful review of each survey question, customizing the survey to the community, planning the interviewer's approach to assigned residences, and practicing the interviews in small groups. Each interview would take about 15 minutes.

Following training, 43 community leaders and volunteers conducted the face-to-face survey. From 10-30 homes were assigned to each interviewer. Residents were notified in advance of the survey. In Brandt, fliers were distributed door-to-door. Nettle Lake residents were informed through a community newsletter. In Ayersville, the residents received a notice in their water bill.

Every residence in each community was to be included in the survey. In Brandt, a community of 150 homes in Miami County, Ohio, local officials conducted the survey over a two-week period in November 1989. Officials from the recreational community of Nettle Lake, in Williams County, Ohio, conducted the survey of 353 homes over a three-week period in August 1990. In Ayersville, Ohio, a community in Defiance County, officials conducted the survey of 350 homes over a five-week period beginning in November 1990.

Results from Three Communities

In total, 578 people responded to the survey. The lowest response rate (52%) was in Nettle Lake, where it was sometimes difficult to find residents at home in the recreational community. The highest response rate of 83% of households was in Ayersville. In Ayersville, the interviews were conducted over the longest time period, five weeks, giving the interviewers ample time to find someone home. In Brandt, 69% of households were surveyed.

The results of each survey were tallied by the group of community leaders and volunteers in a one- to two-hour session. The results can be separated into three categories: information on the home and family, information on the septic systems, and information on the attitudes of the residents about wastewater treatment.

The results showed that most Brandt and Nettle Lake homes were built before 1950, with most of those in Ayersville dating from the 1960s. The predominant home size in Brandt and Ayersville was three bedrooms and two bedrooms in Nettle Lake. In each community, most of the residents moved in during the 1980s.

Information on household income is often difficult to obtain. Between 80% and 90% of the residents interviewed reported their household income. The median income reported for Nettle Lake was between $20,000 and $25,000. For Ayersville, it was between $25,000 and $30,000; Brandt, $25,000.

Information on the existing septic systems also was obtained in the survey. Most of the homes in the three communities were served by septic tanks. Nettle Lake had a number of holding tanks (10%) and outhouses (6%). Most of the tanks in the communities discharged to a leach field in the yard. In Ayersville, road ditches, farm drain tiles, and streams also received effluent.

The residents' attitudes about wastewater treatment also were measured with the survey. Most agreed that sewage odors were offensive in Nettle Lake and Ayersville. Opinion was split about offensive odors in Brandt. In all three communities, most residents agreed septic systems should be permitted. Regarding questions of sewage discharge, more than 82% of residents in all three communities didn't agree with discharging sewage to streams, ditches, lakes, or storm sewers. Most residents (61%, 62%, and 79% in the three communities) were in favor of construction of a sewer system in the community. Also, most were willing to pay for it. However, in all three cases, the percentages decreased (53%, 52%, 76%) when residents were asked if they would be willing to pay for it.


Before making a major decision about sewage facilities in an area without a public sewage system, it's necessary to collect information about the community. This study indicated that trained local officials can collect community information effectively using face-to-face interviews. The response rates achieved by the local officials compare well to those reported by investigators using university researchers or other professionals to conduct the surveys.

However, based on the experience in Ayersville, a minimum five-week survey period is recommended for gathering maximum information. The response to the income questions was also impressive with between 80%-90% of those participating answering.

The information gathered through this survey enabled the community leaders and residents to present an accurate picture of their community to regulatory officials, consultants, contractors, lenders, and others. The questions on community issues also built a framework for decision making for local officials. In these three communities, the local officials learned firsthand that a majority of the residents felt it wasn't acceptable to discharge sewage into streams and storm sewers. They could also assess the level of support for a public sewer project and whether residents were willing to pay for it.

Taking the time and initiative to seek information and input from citizens by conducting a face-to-face survey in a small community shows the strong commitment of local officials. The residents are assured that their representatives value their input and opinion. In the three communities participating in this project, adults from 52%-83% of the households in the communities had an opportunity to interact and voice their opinions to a local official about a sewage facility project. As a result of the community survey, progress toward public sewage facilities has been made in two of the communities.

Through an investment of specialists' time to help local officials determine the need for a survey, train them as interviewers, and help compile and interpret results, Extension can help small communities toward improving water quality.


1. K. Mancl and C. Beer, "High-Density Use of Septic Systems, Avon Lake, Iowa," Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science, LXXXIX (No. 1, 1982), 1-6; J. Y. C. Huang, "Management of On-Site Disposal Systems: Case Study," Journal of Environmental Engineering, CIX (No. 4, 1983), 845-58; T. J. Hoban, "Public Opinion About Wastewater Management In Carteret County, Report to the Carteret County Water and Sewer Task Force" (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, 1989); and P. Wulfhorst and K. Mancl, "Community Decision Making in Providing Sewer Service to a Rural Area," The Environmental Professional, XII (No. 1,1990), 156-63.

2. K. Mancl, "Sanitary Surveys for Small Rural Communities On- Site Wastewater Treatment" (Proceedings of the Fifth National Symposium on Individual and Small Community Sewage Systems, American Society of Agricultural Engineers, Chicago, 1987).

3. D. Ary, L. C. Jacobs, and A. Razavieh, Introduction to Research in Education (Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1985).

4. K. Mancl, "Educating Rural Community Leaders in Wastewater Treatment Alternatives," Water Resources Bulletin, XXV (No. 5, 1989), 985-89.

5. Ibid.