LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.
Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.
Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.
It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables - confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.
Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.
The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.
What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.
To Flowers, 62, the Lowndes County of her childhood was part rural idyll, part activism hotbed. Speaking in a low, easygoing drawl, she recalled playing make-believe in the woods, savoring plums fresh from the garden, spending summer evenings on the porch listening to the radio with one ear while eavesdropping on grown-ups with the other.
In 1965, about 80 percent of the county’s population was Black, but not a single Black person was registered to vote. Most of the land was owned by a handful of White families. A history of lynchings — including the killing of three men who sought to organize a sharecroppers union during the Great Depression — gave the county the nickname “Bloody Lowndes.”
But then protesters from Selma marched down Lowndes’s dirt roads on their way to Montgomery, and a wave of activism erupted. Stokely Carmichael worked to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which registered Black voters and helped elect the county’s first Black officials. Flowers’s father, a military veteran and salesman, and her mother, a teacher’s aide, were heavily involved. Civil rights leaders streamed to their cinder-block home.
“People [in Lowndes County] have taken the little that was given and made a lot of it,” Flowers said. “They nurtured that spirit in me.”
Her parents’ activism connected Flowers to the world beyond Lowndes County. As a teenager, she joined the Alabama Students for Civil Rights and spent a summer in D.C. as a youth fellow at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation. She read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” wrote politics-infused poetry and dreamed of becoming the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 11th grade, frustrated with subpar conditions at her high school, Flowers wrote an exposé for a local newsletter. That led to the formation of a community group, then a lawsuit and, ultimately, to the resignation of the principal and school board superintendent.
“My father’s famous thing he would always say was, ‘Catherine, if you take one step, God will take two,’” Flowers said. It meant that change was possible, but you had to do the work.
Flowers studied history and political science in college between leading marches and attending protests over wrongful convictions and to promote affirmative action. She served in the U.S. Air Force, worked at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, and taught current events and civil rights law to high school students in D.C., North Carolina and Detroit.
But while Flowers was on a visit in 2000, an old friend pulled her into a hug and urged her to come home. “Things are worse for us than they ever have been,” Flowers recalled her friend saying. So Flowers moved to nearby Montgomery and took a job with the NAACP.
That’s when she found out that Lowndes County’s soil was part of the problem.
The dark and fertile clay — so ideal for cotton farming, and the source of the region’s “Black Belt” nickname — is terrible for drainage. It swells up when wet, closing off air pockets and creating a watertight seal.
But septic systems require permeable soil. Waste from homes is piped into a buried tank, where solid material is retained but liquid waste is released into an underground “leach field,” where it is slowly broken down by microbes as it percolates through the earth.
All over the county, septic systems were breaking down. Heavy rainfall would seal up the soil until effluent had nowhere to go but up onto lawns or back into homes.
U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys show that more than 93 percent of land in the county is of “very limited” suitability for septic tank leach fields. An engineer could design a special system to work in those conditions, but that would cost upward of $10,000 per household — more than half the median annual income for Lowndes residents.
Flowers recalled the first time she met Pamela Rush, a warm, soft-spoken mother of two whose single-wide trailer had no waste treatment system at all — just a yellow “straight pipe” that carried waste into a pit behind her home. Inside, the home was furnished with care; art on the walls, a mobile that read “Angels live here” hung overhead. But the sour smell of sewage permeated everything.
Rush’s preteen daughter suffered from asthma and had to sleep with a continuous positive airway pressure machine, commonly known as a CPAP. Her teenage son was struggling in school. And Rush had diabetes and respiratory problems and could not work. She worried constantly about the health effects of the sewage pooling just outside her walls.
Yet there was no money for even a conventional septic tank, let alone an engineered system. The family was still paying off the mortgage on a mobile home that was sold to them for far more than it was worth.
“I just cried,” Flowers said. “It was so stark.”
When a visit to another resident’s flooded lawn gave Flowers a rash her doctors couldn’t diagnose, she turned to scientists at Baylor College’s National School of Tropical Medicine. The researchers collected stool samples from 55 residents and found that 24 contained traces of hookworm or another intestinal parasite. These infections, which can cause inflammation and nutrient deficiencies as well as developmental delays in children, were supposed to have been eradicated in the South almost 100 years ago.
Flowers — then director of the nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) — set out to determine the scale of the problem. With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she and local volunteers surveyed roughly half of all households in the county. About two-thirds relied on septic tanks, and about 10 percent of homes had no waste treatment system at all. More than 500 respondents described trouble with their systems, even those who were connected to municipal sewers or had septic tanks that were permitted by the state. Flowers’s mother had sewage backing up into her sink.
Sandy Oliver, a volunteer who had worked on the survey, struggled with her own septic tank. Rainy weather or running the washing machine would turn the backyard into sludge. The tank constantly needed pumping — a $500 fee she could not afford.
“It’s not like we can help it,” Oliver said. “It’s not the systems. It’s the ground.”
To the state of Alabama, that circumstance was a crime. Between 1996 and 2002, court records show, 14 Lowndes County residents were arrested and charged with using an “insanitary” septic system or were charged with a related violation. In half of the cases, the charges eventually were dismissed. But six people pleaded guilty and were required to pay a fine of $250 plus court costs.
The arrests largely stopped after media attention in the mid-2000s. The law is still on the books but, Sherry Bradley, the director of the Bureau of Environmental Services at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said in an interview that she doesn’t want to penalize people for something she knows they have no power to change.
The United States has countless communities like Lowndes County. In Alaska, more than 1 in 5 rural residents lack adequate water and sanitation service. In Centreville, Ill., frequent floods and a failing sewer system turn residents’ backyards into wastewater lagoons. Some 7,500 homes in Navajo Nation in the U.S. Southwest have no sewage disposal systems. Rojelio Mejia, the Baylor scientist who found hookworm in Alabama, has detected similar “diseases of poverty” in a largely Latino community in Central Texas, an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago and among AIDS patients in D.C.
“This is America,” Flowers said. “We’re not supposed to have these kinds of problems — at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. But we do.”
Race and income are the strongest indicators of inadequate sewage and the associated health issues. Black, Latino and Native American and Alaska Native households are disproportionately more likely to be “plumbing poor,” according to a 2019 study reported in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Renting, living in a mobile home and earning less than the local median income are all associated with plumbing problems.
This inequality is evidence of systemic bias against people of color and rural communities, Flowers says. After the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government poured billions of dollars into wastewater treatment, but not always in the places that needed it most. Tribal reservations were not eligible for federal water and sewage funding until the late 1980s. Predominantly Black neighborhoods often were excluded from municipal sewer system upgrades. A lack of infrastructure means few or no businesses in an area, depriving the affected communities of resources and jobs.
Even the programs meant to help ended up inadvertently marginalizing people in places like Lowndes County. Many people live on “heir property” — a term common in the South that generally refers to land that has been in African American families for generations but to which no one has legal title — making the occupants ineligible for government aid. Most federal loans must be matched and ultimately paid back, putting them out of reach of poor, rural residents.
Meanwhile, climate change is making existing deficiencies worse. Rising sea levels have elevated the water table in coastal areas, shrinking the depth of leach fields and increasing contamination. Days of extreme rainfall — which have doubled in the Southeast as a consequence of warming — stymie septic systems.
Studies suggest that if climate change continues unabated, septic systems will be less able to filter toxic nitrates and fecal bacteria from wastewater. According to Mejia, warming in the Southeast has doubled the length of the infectious season for parasites such as hookworm, whose larvae hatch in warm, moist soils and infiltrate humans through bare feet.
“Climate change is like a magnifying glass for everything,” Flowers said. It exacerbates neglect, widens inequality and exposes problems once hidden.
Flowers has made it her mission to ensure that other Americans do not look away. She advised Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on legislation to improve surveillance and treatment of “diseases of poverty,” such as hookworm. She served on the task force that developed President-elect Joe Biden’s climate plan, advocating for environmental justice and improvements in sewage management. Her memoir, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” was published in November. Meanwhile, she has brought every powerful person she can find to Lowndes County: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston, actress Jane Fonda, and pastor and activist William J. Barber II.
Often it was Rush who gave the tours. The quiet woman turned out to be a powerful activist. In 2018, she testified before Congress, tearfully describing the mold in her home, her astronomical utility bills, her fear for her children’s health. “It’s hard,” she concluded, simply.
“She had this natural ability to connect to people, and for people to empathize,” Flowers said. “Because she didn’t want sympathy. She just wanted change.”
By 2019, change finally seemed to be coming. Congress authorized millions of dollars of new funding for rural septic tanks and wastewater programs, many of them championed by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), whose district includes Lowndes County. Bradley, of the state health department, obtained a grant to provide engineered septic tanks for 100 Lowndes County homes with straight pipes or failing systems; 10 homes now have them. And billionaire environmentalist Kat Taylor, whom Flowers had met at a racial justice event in Montgomery, had offered to pay for a new mobile home for Rush and her children.
But Flowers and Rush had to figure out a way to safely treat the family’s waste. Rush’s half-acre property was too small for most engineered septic systems; the mechanisms that might have worked would have been prohibitively expensive to maintain.
Then the novel coronavirus hit. Lowndes County became one of Alabama’s worst hot spots, with a fatality rate almost twice the national average. If climate change was a magnifying glass, the virus was a “heat-seeking missile,” Flowers said, zeroing in on society’s most vulnerable members.
By July, the missile found Rush. The 49-year-old died at a Birmingham hospital.
“The official cause of death was covid,” Flowers wrote in her memoir. “But the underlying causes of her suffering were poverty, environmental injustice, climate change, race and health disparities.”
To Flowers, the same injustices that shaped Lowndes County’s history going back to slavery had dictated the terms of Rush’s life and the circumstances of her death. Change would require solving all of those intertwined problems.
“We have to create something new and different,” Flowers said in an interview in November. “We have to do better.”
Wiping her eyes, she added: “In Pam’s memory.”
Flowers has a vision for a better septic system. It’s cheap to buy and easy to run. It’s equipped with sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Instead of allowing sewage to seep into the ground, the system separates waste into its component parts, which can then be recycled.
“Waste could provide a lot of solutions,” Flowers said, “if we just learned to think about it differently.”
In Kartik Chandran, she found a partner who shares that vision.
They met five years ago at a conference on wastewater issues. Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, was struck by how similar Lowndes County’s waste problems were to those in his native India. Flowers remembered hearing about Chandran’s research and thinking, “This is the technological solution we need.”
An expert in the chemical and biological processes that remove contaminants from waste, Chandran had helped to improve sewage systems from D.C. to Denmark. But he knew those advances weren’t helping the millions of people who live beyond the reach of pipes.
He also thought it was a mistake to refer to sewage as “waste,” when it is actually rich with potentially valuable resources: nitrogen, phosphorous, organic material. He and his colleagues started working on ways to scale down big-city sewage technology and upgrade treatment processes, turning every septic tank into its own miniature “resource recovery system.”
Chandran’s lab is a maze of plastic tubes and burbling tanks, each jug containing some mix of wastewater and chemicals. In one prototype, a film of bacteria takes the nitrogen out of synthetic urine; it’s been running for more than a decade, he said, and takes almost no energy to function. With another experiment, Chandran is trying to find the right combination of microbes that will turn organics from fecal sludge into fuel, which could theoretically be used to help power homes. When all these processes are integrated, he said, the heat and acidity produced through decomposition will kill off dangerous germs, and the water that comes out the other end will be clean enough to be recycled in washing machines or cooling systems.
But the most important metric of success, he said, is whether the people who need the system actually will use it. That’s where his partnership with Flowers comes in.
Through the new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice lab, representatives from Lowndes County, Navajo Nation and other affected areas will be part of the design team for the high-tech septic tank. The lab has initial funding from a sustainable finance company, and Chandran is applying for more grants. Once the coronavirus pandemic recedes, engineers from his lab will move into partner communities while they work on improving the system.
Different places will have different needs, Chandran noted. Rural communities like Lowndes County might benefit from a tank that extracts nitrogen and phosphorous to be used as fertilizer. In the desert Southwest, it might be more important to purify to drinking quality the water that comes out of the tanks.
“We’re not trying to force a technology,” he said. “We’re working with a community to find out what needs to be done.”
The technology could be useful beyond rural areas; urban sewage systems are also at risk as the planet warms. Heavy rains cause overflows that send billions of gallons of effluent into local waterways. Extreme storms can disable wastewater treatment plants or cause power failures at sewage-holding lagoons.
And in a world altered by warming, where natural disasters are more frequent and water shortages severe, humanity can’t afford to waste anything — not even sewage, Flowers said. By reducing contamination, recycling water, perhaps even generating energy, the new system could address all these connected problems.
It pleases Flowers to think that — after being overlooked for so long — her home county could be part of the solution to one of the planet’s biggest crises.
“We’ll show how this little community, a rural community in Alabama, will have a global impact,” she said. “Lowndes County has always been a beacon. And it will continue to be.”