RI Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials

Resources For Wastewater Managers

  • A wastewater management plan summarizes the status of septic systems in a town or region, including causes and impacts of septic system failure. It further identifies areas or resources of particular concern and outlines goals for a wastewater management program. In Rhode Island, a wastewater plan enables towns to qualify for a line of credit under the State’s Community Septic System Loan Program (CSSLP).

    The plan also provides a complete summary of issues closely related to wastewater such as development, land use, population pressures, and the natural features of an area such as topography, geology, and soils. The plan outlines how it complements other regional studies and plans such as the Town Comprehensive Plan.

    Finally, the wastewater plan outlines a strategy to complete the goals of a wastewater management program. The program strategy may contain the following components:

    • Public outreach, education, and technical assistance
    • A septic system inspection and maintenance program
    • Zoning and subdivision standards related to septic system setbacks and performance
    • A financial incentive program to repair and upgrade failing and substandard systems

    Sample Onsite Wastewater Management Plan from Charlestown, RI

  • A Wastewater Management Ordinance is the foundation for administration and enforcement of the town wastewater management program. There are many decisions that will need to be made. A selection of these important decisions are outlined below.

    Sample Wastewater Management Ordinance From Jamestown, RI

    Component #1: Purpose

    This section of the ordinance explains the importance of regulating onsite sewage disposal systems. Until recently, most towns have been faced with two very different choices for wastewater management: central collection and treatment of wastewater, carefully controlled ad monitored by sewer districts vs. totally managed individual systems with maintenance completely up to the homeowner. Centralized collection systems are not feasible for all communities, for both environmental and economical reasons. Onsite technologies are now recognized to be a cost effective and, by maintaining groundwater recharge, an environmentally sound treatment option. This is true only when systems are properly designed, installed, used, and maintained. For this reason, most towns are writing a wastewater management ordinance and adopting wastewater management districts.

    Component #2: Administration

    A wastewater management ordinance typically describes what town department, board, or position will be responsible for the day to day management of the WWM Program. Typically the public works department is responsible for the management with oversight from conservation commissions and town planning boards.

    Component #3: Design and Construction Requirements

    This section of the wastewater management ordinance often explains town implemented regulations that impact the design and construction of all new ISDS located in the town. Often times these regulations are more stringent than current state regulations. Some of the items address here include: Access Risers and Effluent Filters, Watertight Septic Tanks, and Septic Tank Sizing.

    Component #4: Inspections, Monitoring, Operation, Maintenance and Enforcement

    This is the largest section of the wastewater management ordinance. It encompasses the requirements for the nuts and bolts of a town management program. Specifically, this section lays out who can perform ISDS inspections, defines different types of inspections, and explains what type of maintenance is required on each system type or in each district. For Example, a critical resource area may have strict inspection, maintenance, and monitoring requirements, where a non-critical area may be regulated by a pumping requirement.

    Enforcement is also a big part of the wastewater management ordinance. This is where the town sets regulations and timelines for program compliance, and replacement of failed / substandard systems. Homeowners are also entitled to proper review, hearing, and appeal processes.

    Component #5: Record Keeping, Inventory and Reporting

    This section of the ordinance, establishes the need for proper tracking and record keeping. The information gathered in the inspection and inventory process is valuable information and the town is responsible for collecting, tracking, analyzing and reporting the results.

    Component #6: Financial Assistance and Funding

    This section of the ordinance allows the town or town council the authority to raise funds for the administration and operation of the onsite wastewater management program. Typically, Rhode Island communities have established a fee schedule that constitutes an annual assessment to all ISDS owners in the community. This section of the ordinance also addresses the need to establish a low interest loan or grant program for system upgrade and replacement.

    Component #7: Education and Outreach

    Establishing a public education program is imperative for a successful wastewater management program. Residents need to be informed about the benefits and goals of the wastewater management ordinance and plan. A typical education and outreach program includes contracting with a consultant or university to provide educational workshops, and advertisements to the community.


  • Performing a Needs Assessment
    Use readily available data such as RIGIS land use data and RI HEALTH public well data.

    Evaluate pollution risks to groundwater from onsite systems and other sources. Indicators could include:

    • Estimated nitrogen inputs to groundwater recharge
    • Septic systems per acre
    • Developed riparian buffers
    • Soil suitability
    • Parcel sizes

    Evaluate environmental constraints:

    • Steep slopes
    • Buffers to water bodies or wells

    Determine suitability for onsite wastewater treatment.

    Identify community wastewater management options.

    More Information
    The Chepachet Village Decentralized Wastewater Demonstration Project Report provides detailed information about the use of a needs assessment in a wastewater project for the Rhode Island town of Chepachet.

  • Initially, 319 grants may be available from the state to write a wastewater management ordinance. Typically Rhode Island towns have been able to secure $25,000 from DEM, which has been used to hire a consultant to write a wastewater management plan and lobby for support of the program.

    Once you have an approved wastewater plan, the community is eligible for the Community Septic System Loan Program (CSSLP), through Clean Water Finance Agency. CSSLP provides low interest loans in amounts up to $25,000 to residents for replacement of failed or substandard systems.

    Coordinating finances is an ongoing process with any community wastewater program. A sample, annual budget for funding your Town’s wastewater management program is shown below:


    Town Engineer,
    Environmental Scientist or Planner (Including benefits) $78,000.00
    50% of salary to be paid by wastewater budget $39,000.00

    Full Time Clerk (Including benefits) $29,000.00

    TOTAL PAYROLL $68,000.00


    Web-Based Program’s Annual Fee
    (Based on 5,000 Systems) $5,000.00



    Sample Mailing Costs $1,000.00
    Certified Notices $2,000.00



    Office Supplies $2,500.00
    Equipment (computers, printers, cameras, GPS units, etc) $5,000.00


    Advertising in Newspaper $5,000.00
    Homeowner Workshops $1,000.00
    Factsheets, Posters, etc. $2,000.00
    CEU’s and Training for Staff $4,500.00


    TOTAL BUDGET $96,000.00
    Homeowner Assessment of $20 x 4,800 residents: $96,000.00
  • Communicating with residents is one of the most critical aspects of any wastewater management program.  Residents who understand the goals of the program and what is expected will be far more likely to participate willingly. 

    It’s important not only to begin public outreach and education as the program gets underway, but also as it progresses.  Continued newspaper articles, cartoons, advertisements, and information sessions are vital.  They will reach residents you haven’t reached in the initial stages and also will allow you to respond to residents’ complaints or misperceptions.

    $350Communicating with residents includes not only mass communication (such as the newspaper ad above) but also direct and targeted letters.  For examples of letters and factsheets that can be sent to homeowners, please visit our Sending Inspection Notices webpage.


  • Innovative and Alternative onsite wastewater treatment technologies are being installed in most RI communities. Rhode Island communities that do not have an onsite wastewater management program, can begin by tracking operation and maintenance agreements and service events, as RIDEM specifies that this is a town responsibility. Ensuring that maintenance contracts for alternative systems are renewed regularly is particularly critical given increasing use of these systems on marginal sites. The availability of web-based onsite tracking programs allows municipalities the option of hiring a private consultant to monitor compliance with maintenance requirements, rather than relying on staff.


    Step 1: Select Tracking Software
    Selecting an adequate tracking program can greatly assist the Town in making sure O&M contracts are in place and service events are occurring when required. Web-based tracking programs (for example, Carmody) are becoming popular because they are often times less expensive than stand-alone software packages and most can notify the town when O&M contracts expire and when systems fall behind in service events. Web-based programs are also a popular choice because they allow service providers to submit contract renewals and O&M events electronically, cutting back on the clerical duties of the town staff.


    Step 2: Compile A List Of All I&A Systems In The Town

    RIDEM will submit the town with a list of all conformed I&A systems. The Town can keep the list accurate by adding new systems as they conform (the building inspector receives the certificate of conformance from RIDEM). We recommend that towns create a list of all conformed systems by technology.

    The below table outlines the minimum information needed to track I&A systems.


    Site IDType of Technology Installed:Date Installed:Current Service Provider:# of Services Needed Per Year:Active O&M Contract?
    (yes or no)
    Previous Service Date:Next Service Date:

    System in Compliance with Regulations?
    (yes or no)


    Step 3: Contact Manufactures
    Most manufactures and local distributors keep good records of their clients and can easily supply the town with necessary information. Manufactures understand that proper O&M keeps their technology working as designed and they are eager to comply with State and Town requirements.

    Step 4: Certify Maintenance Providers
    The University of Rhode Island offers a two-day O&M course with exam. This intensive course provides service providers with valuable information on operating and maintaining all RI approved I&A technologies. In addition to this class, most manufactures also offer O&M training for their particular technology. Towns should require that service providers submit proof of certification and insurance. It is a good idea to develop a service provider application and then publish a list of Town Approved service providers.

    Step 5: Notify Homeowners Who Do Not Have Current Maintenance Contract
    If a property owner is listed in the database as having an I&A system but they are not on any service providers client list they should receive a letter from the town asking that they contract with a Town Approved service provider and submit an active O&M contract within 45 days of the notice.  We have a variety of sample letters in the section Sending Inspection Notices.

     Step 6: Enforcement
    Annual O&M is required by RIDEM as part of I&A system approval. The Town should notify the state as soon as properties are reported as being non-compliant. Town’s may also choose to adopt a wastewater management ordinance, which will grant them the ability to issue notices of violation and monetary penalties to non-compliant property owners.

  • Developing a Timeline
    When starting a town-wide inspection program we recommend splitting the town into management districts – starting first with the critical areas. Although it is important to implement the program in a timely manner, you don’t want to move too quickly. If you send out more notices than the inspectors can handle, the quality of the inspections will suffer and the program will gain negative press.

    We recommend researching the optimal number of inspections that can take place in your town during a given week. In most communities, this number is driven by the amount of septage the local wastewater treatment plant can accept and the availability of inspectors. Once you determine this number you can begin breaking the community into districts and phases. Here’s an example:

    Let’s say you have 1000 homes in your critical resource area (this would be District 1) and you want to see around 25 inspections completed per week in your community, it would take 40 weeks or 10 months to complete the inspections for District 1. However, it is not a good idea to send notices out during winter months, and we recommend splitting Districts into multiple phases as it’s easier to manage the data. So if you split up District 1 into five phases, each consisting of 200 homes, you arrive at the following schedule:

    District 1 – Implementation Schedule

    Number of Homes
    Date Notices Issued
    March 2016
    May 2016
    July 2016
    September 2016
    March 2017








    Building a Relationship with Service Providers
    For a successful wastewater management program, it is imperative to build a good working relationship with the service providers. The service providers are the town’s eyes and ears in the field and because of their knowledge, experience and direct contact with homeowners they are a great asset in spreading information to the public. However, it is important to have predefined rules and procedures for the inspectors to follow, as well as a solid certification program to ensure only qualified individuals are performing inspections in your community.

    Develop Inspection Rules and Procedures
    In Rhode Island, the Septic System Checkup Handbook is the standardized document that towns use for training septic system inspectors. This document was written in cooperation with Rhode Island’s Septic System Maintenance Policy Forum. The policy forum is a roundtable group that comprises approximately 100 representatives from federal, state and local government, as well as private associations, businesses and general public. The resulting document provides guidelines for conducting septic system inspections as well as recommended maintenance procedures and inspection reports.

    Develop Inspector Certification
    The University of Rhode Island offers a two-day, conventional septic system inspection class that is based on the Septic System Checkup Handbook.  Upon successful completion of this class, an inspector can request to be added to a town’s list of approved septic inspectors. For more information, please visit The New England Onsite Wastewater Training Center.

    Many communities have additional requirements for septic system inspectors. Some of these requirements include: liability insurance (with the town listed as additional insured); continued education credits, professional conduct statement and online reporting. Communities usually develop an inspector’s application that describes these requirements.

    Publish Inspectors List
    When a service provider completes an application meeting the town’s requirements, they are then added to a list of town approved inspectors. This list is provided to homeowners with the inspection notices.

  • For communities with a mandatory inspection and maintenance program, it is important not only to implement the program by sending notices, but also to analyze the collected inspection data, enforce the regulations, and report the results. Often a community will get caught up in collecting data and lose sight of the overall goal, which is to analyze and report the status of onsite systems in the community in order to protect water quality.

    Analyzing Data
    As communities analyze the results, they will begin to notice trends in the data. It is important for wastewater management programs to evolve as inspection results are gathered and analyzed. For example, in after two months of inspections in Jamestown, the town noticed that 30% of the systems reported use of garbage disposals, and that many of these system were not being maintained as frequently as they should have been. The town responded by creating a fact sheet educating homeowners about the dangers of garbage grinders, and the town applied for grant money to help homeowners upgrade their systems with access risers and effluent filters.

    Enforcing Regulations
    Towns are often diligent about sending initial inspection notices, but find it difficult to follow up when residents don’t comply with the initial notice. Towns will typically experience around 70% compliance with the initial inspection notices, but it is important to follow-up with reminder notices to the other 30%. Firstly, most residents fully intend to comply with the town’s regulations but may be a tad forgetful. Secondly, if the town accepts the 70% compliance and doesn’t follow-up with the remaining property owners, word will quickly spread that the town doesn’t enforce the regulations and initial compliance will drop below 70%.

    Reporting Results
    When data is analyzed and trends are noticed it becomes very important to make the results available to the public. We recommend producing quarterly reports to the Town Council and advertising the results on a town website. This keeps the residents informed as to the current status of onsite systems in their neighborhood and lets them know that the Town is serious about wastewater management.

    It is also a good idea to talk with the editor of the local newspaper about publishing articles on the progress the town is making with their wastewater management program. For example, Block Island has a great relationship with the local paper; the stories and maps published in the newspaper educated property owners, increased awareness, and were partly responsible for the increases in compliance over the years.

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