ACRE-Duke Partnership to Improve Sanitation Access in Lowndes County, Alabama (2018-2019)


Over the past several years, stories of failing and inadequate water infrastructure in urban areas of the United States—most notably, the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan—have caught the attention of the media and the public. While attention has increasingly focused on the problem of dilapidated water and sanitation infrastructure in urban America, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the absence or poor quality of existing infrastructure can undermine health and economic opportunities in rural America.

Lowndes County is illustrative of a host of social and environmental inequalities facing rural communities of color in the American South, including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity, hazardous health conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Only two municipalities in the county maintain centralized wastewater treatment plants, while the remaining rural population is served by on-site septic systems or lack adequate sanitation. Poor sanitation poses serious health risks. The Baylor College of Medicine found evidence of five tropical diseases, including hookworm (previously thought to be eradicated in the U.S.), in fecal samples from residents.

Since 2014, Duke’s Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute (DHRC@FHI) and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) have partnered to address the inadequacy of wastewater treatment infrastructure, which is an economic, racial and environmental injustice entrenched in many communities in rural, black America.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project aims to understand the reasons for the lack of proper sanitation in Lowndes County, improve sanitation access in the county and explore racial and economic justice in rural America.

The team will work with ACRE to develop solutions for a more inclusive and sustainable economy, as access to water and sanitation are necessary for community members to be able to have viable economic livelihoods. Through the lens of the provision of water services, team members will examine three interdependent components: the physical component; the legal framework; and the political and financial dimensions. The team will develop an overarching analysis of the barriers of access to water infrastructure that stem from a history of racial and economic inequities.

Team members will analyze physical, hydrological, regulatory and economic data; conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the most efficient options for sanitation; design more affordable individual and clustered wastewater treatment systems by surveying low-cost technologies that leverage easy-to-install, low-cost materials and tailoring these solutions for Lowndes County; determine the institutional barriers that prevent communities from applying for and receiving financial assistance; and make visible the dynamic connections between ACRE’s wastewater work and a larger story of water, soil and society in Lowndes County as well as the contemporary emergence of “water protectors” and water-based organizing.

Anticipated Outcomes

Suitability maps for several types of infrastructure solutions; report on water quality; analysis comparing relative costs, risks and distributional impacts of three to four options to meet sanitation needs in Lowndes County; report and infographic summary of recommended zoning/growth plan for Lowndes County; template engineering design drawings and specifications for individual and clustered wastewater treatment system; report and short summary of estimated initial upfront costs for materials, installation and maintenance; report explaining how eligibility criteria, application and recipient requirements and insufficient funding act as barriers; synthesis of recommended policy solutions; story of water and history of social life in Lowndes County; analysis of water protectors and emergence of water-based organizing

Student Opportunities

There will be several trips for students throughout the year, including a field trip to Warren County (the birthplace of the environmental justice movement), participation in the Environmental Justice Summit in North Carolina and a trip to Lowndes County.

Students will increase knowledge of the history of environmental and economic injustices in Lowndes County; gain research skills including data collection and analysis; expand their ability to work on an interdisciplinary research team; and improve written and oral communication skills. In addition, students will develop skills in contributing to project outputs such as reports, publications and multimedia products (e.g., documentaries). Graduate students can gain experience in research design, interdisciplinary collaboration and project leadership and management.

A graduate student project manager will coordinate the logistics and content of the research and outreach. There will be graduate and undergraduate student team leaders for the technical, social science and humanities research teams. Ph.D. students will play a leadership role in guiding master’s and undergraduate projects.

The ideal composition of team members includes 12-15 undergraduates and 4-6 graduate students across a range of majors and disciplines. Desired skills include engineering design, spatial analysis (ArcGIS, spatial analysis in R), econometrics/statistics, oral history, water analysis, environmental politics, policy analysis and storytelling.

Students will be evaluated on the quality of the products produced and participation in the project. Early in the fall, a team charter will lay out expectations for the course of the year. Teams will be required to present updates on a monthly basis.


Fall 2018 – Summer 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Develop team charter and projects for each team; review past years’ work with ACRE; meet with Catherine Flowers; team meetings on projects; participate in EJ Summit; work in disciplinary teams
  • Spring 2019: Revisit team charter and plan different outcomes (documentary film, timeline, academic publication, reports); work in disciplinary teams; meet with Catherine Flowers; present draft projects; develop trip to Lowndes County and summer work plans; present projects
  • Summer 2019: Student trip to Lowndes County; present student projects


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

This Team in the News

Solution-centered Collaborative Research in Rural Alabama

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School of the Environment*
Megan Mullin, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
David Schaad, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
Emily Stewart, Franklin Humanities Institute-Duke Human Rights Center*
Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy*

Graduate Team Members

Kathleen Hansen, Environment-PHD
Ryan Juskus, Religion-PHD

Community Team Members

Catherine Flowers, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE)*

* denotes team leader


Active, New