Onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS; septic systems, compost toilets, etc.) used to treat wastewater in rural areas have the potential to contaminate groundwater (that is used as a water source) with nitrate. There have been decades of scientific and political conflicts concerning the issue of nitrate from OWTS (NOWTS, pronounced “knots”) in the communities of La Pine, Oregon and Laramie, Wyoming. This dissertation explores the science and policy of NOWTS conflicts to determine how decision makers, experts, consultants, residents, stakeholders, and the author effect, and are affected by, the NOWTS conflicts.
This dissertation explores the conflicts in La Pine and Laramie through four chapters. Chapter two is a soil study conducted in La Pine to determine how much nitrate from septic systems reaches the water table. It was found that there was more nitrate in soils at residences with septic systems than other areas, but due to the limitations of the study source of the nitrate was uncertain. The HYDRUS model was used to simulate nitrate transport from septic systems and found that nitrate concentrations are reduced by 24-40% by the time septic water reaches the water table in La Pine.
Chapter three analyzes how stakeholders were affected by the history and the geographic setting of conflicts in La Pine and Laramie. Information was collected from surveys in La Pine, interviews in Laramie, and documentation of the conflicts from both locations. Geographically it was found that stakeholders in La Pine and Laramie were split along the urban-rural divide. From the history stakeholders became more knowledgeable of the conflict, stakeholders created opinions of other stakeholders that colored interactions, and stakeholders were fatigued by the conflicts.
Chapter four explores the role of government experts, consultants, and academics (GAC experts) in the conflicts in La Pine and Laramie through five controversial studies in La Pine and Laramie. It was found that miscommunications occurred between GAC experts and stakeholders that escalated conflicts. Miscommunications included the role experts were supposed to play in the conflict. GAC expert’s language and mannerism, such as dumping too much information on stakeholder at one time. There were also study limitations and external factors that made is so that experts could not sufficiently address stakeholder questions and concerns.
Chapter five studies the role of science created by residents (resident science) in La Pine in Laramie. Some residents have high educational attainments and are professionals in water resources related fields and conducted resident science independently or with the support of non-governmental organizations. Factors that led to the creation of resident science were mistrust between residents and experts, residents noticed data gaps or had unanswered questions, and stakeholders had the resources for resident science. Though resident science was controversial in La Pine and Laramie it was accepted enough that it was part of the conflict dialog and affected policies.
The conclusion summarizes the findings from the previous chapters and provides policy recommendations and recommendations for future NOWTS studies. The policy recommendations were to involve more groups and to expand the scope of the conflict to increase the pool of resources and add flexibility to the conflict. Another was to leverage small cooperative projects between multiple groups to build trust and political momentum for larger actions. Science recommendations focus on ways for experts to collaborate with stakeholders to assuage conflict. Both the science and policy issues need to be addressed to move forward on NOWTS conflict.
Demaree, D.H., 2020, Nitrate derived from Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (NOWTS): A Study of Public Perceptions, Politics, and Perpetual Permitting in the Western US [Ph.D. thesis]: Corvallis, Oregon State University, 375 p.