Everyday Collapse

My last post was a bit heavy, I’ll admit. Pondering statewide catastrophes that lead to permanent regional change is not easy reading, and probably most people would rather not think about it too much.  If I lost anyone, I regret it.

So today I’ll get back to my old modus operandi of focusing on positive solutions! In this case I want to share a way to address a much more modest sort of deterioration, which if left unaddressed would eventually lead to a collapse of habitability for 850 households in Tennessee.

The Harpeth Wastewater Cooperative was formed to address an apparently common problem of which I was previously oblivious (having lived with well-organized public sewage systems except for a couple of years of outhouses during my Alaska phase). I discovered this story through the excellent electric co-op news site, ECT.coop. I love that one “utility” co-op form is providing expertise to another field that is less-developed – this is what cooperation among co-ops is about.

A electric co-op state association staffer, Mike Knotts, is leading the effort to bring a badly-neglected sewer system near Nashville, Tenn. under community control. They created a (de facto) co-op following a “bloodless coup” to wrest control from the last in a long series of owners, who (foolishly) changed their unprofitable business into a nonprofit in an attempt to skirt regulation.

This passage in the article really shows the nature of the beast.

The story really begins some 40 years ago, when a developer wanted to build homes in a vacant part of Williamson County, Tenn., outside Nashville. “He built his own sewer system to serve that neighborhood,” said Knotts, noting that it’s a somewhat common business model.

Over the decades, the sewer utility was sold to one private owner after another. “All of those owners have been property developers. Everyone who has purchased that utility has purchased it for the purpose of developing a new neighborhood,” said Knotts.

Many of those prospects failed, Knotts said, with the result that “every owner has been sitting on an asset that they don’t know how to run, and that they no longer have any profit motive to own.”


Harpeth apparently faces colossal problems related to four decades of patchwork construction to serve the real-estate development needs of its various profiteers, combined with their structural lack of interest in maintenance. So the members probably have a hard struggle ahead, as they try to balance growing needs for major work against increased costs to members.

Will they be able to meet the challenge? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: They are more likely to succeed in restoring this decrepit sewer than would an absentee owner whose success depends on minimizing expense on the existing system in order to expand its periphery. Such parasitic ownership has a definition of success that is in obvious opposition to the success of the community.

Harpeth’s co-op probably has a good struggle ahead, but at least they’re moving in the right direction, with support from a much-better-developed co-op sector in a related field of operation.


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