Rural Challenges and "Straight Pipes"

The rural nature of Alabama’s Black Belt region presents difficulties for the communities that are not immediately evident to outsiders. One such problem is the challenge in achieving adequate residential waste treatment. Limited funds and geographic sprawl preclude the construction of municipal wastewater treatment systems for many communities, and the soil type in much of the region causes standard septic systems to fail. A coalition of universities and government entities are working to address the wastewater treatment issues that plague as many as fifty percent of Alabama’s rural Black Belt residents.


“Straight pipes” are commonly used to divert waste away from homes, usually downhill or into a depression, but they do not provide waste treatment. It is likely that illness and groundwater contamination are caused by the spread of untreated waste, though little data has been published for the region. Students aim to partner with a community to improve the safety and comfort of their homes.

EWB advisor and members with Alabama District 7 US Representative Terri Sewell center at a health fair held for Lowndes County residents.

PVC pipe extending under a porch in Lowndes County, AL. This waste diversion method is known as "straight piping."

Current Situation

The second project of our chapter's Domestic Team took place in Altanta, Georgia.  The goal of the project was to design an engineering solution to a culvert that experienced habitual flooding.  Expanding into interstate projects, the Domestic team has been able to look into potential projects across the Southeast as a means to allow student involvement without the cost of international travel.

Reaching Out

This project diverges from traditional EWB projects in that students are seeking a community to partner with rather than being approached through EWB. The insular nature of communities and past disappointments have made this a challenge, but students have reached out to Auburn extension agents in Black Belt counties; professors at other universities; the Alabama Department of Public Health; and more. Within 2020, our domestic team successfully communicated, planned, and implemented a project with a flooded Atlanta culvert.

Waste pools and spreads, potentially contaminating groundwater - this is exacerbated during rain events.