From The Editor | August 1, 2018

Blue-Collar Heroes: Helping Smaller Rural Water Systems Flourish

Pete Antoniewicz

By Pete Antoniewicz


While all water treatment utilities (WTPs) and wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) face challenges, small rural systems are particularly hard-pressed due to limited resources. In a contrast of proportions, small water systems supporting fewer than 3,500 customers serve about 8 percent of the U.S. population, yet constitute nearly 83 percent of nation’s 51,000 community water systems. Sixty-five percent of those small systems serve 500 customers or less, and many of them are rural systems. Fortunately, they do not have to face their challenges alone.

Different Zip Codes, Similar Problems, Added Challenges

Small, rural water systems share many of the same problems as their big-city cousins — demanding regulatory compliance, outdated rate structures, aging infrastructure, and aging workforces. On top of that, they also face unique obstacles — smaller ratepayer bases for amortizing costs, reduced prospects for finding local qualified workforce replacements, and proportionally longer pipeline distances between customers. The quickest path to success is to seek help from someone experienced in solving the combined challenges of small water system operations.

Rural Resources: Light On The Horizon

Although many rural water systems are off the beaten path, they do not need to be out of the loop. Multiple resources are available to help these smaller utilities address their immediate and long-term needs — from immediate interventions, to ongoing education, to financing opportunities, and even long-term strategies.

  • The U.S. EPA provides many types of financial assistance and technical tools for small and rural water systems.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Rural Development Agency funds many types of assistance to rural areas, including specific water and environmental programs. One of these is the Circuit Rider Program, which provides technical assistance to rural water systems experiencing day-to-day operational, financial, or managerial issues.
  • The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) helps the USDA deliver the Circuit Rider program to rural utilities. The NRWA provides links to technical training, state-specific rural water associations, a water professionals network, and Water U. NRWA provides training and technical assistance to all eligible water and wastewater systems, regardless of membership. Many of its state-specific rural water associations also offer their own slate of local training programs.
  • The Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) is another organization that helps implement USDA Rural Development programs. RCAP also complements that short-term assistance with other more long-term approaches to informative resources, training, and other forms of assistance.
  • The AWWA provides educational resources in a variety of formats across the industry, for utilities large and small.
  • promotes having collected the “best resources on the web” for small water system operators in a free, user-friendly location. That includes updated information from more than 800 state and national organizations, 11,000+ training events annually, and 17,000+ free resources indexed in the database. The program is a collaboration between RCAP and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with funding from the U.S. EPA.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

As this short video interview of Circuit Rider field personnel demonstrates, working with water utilities isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life — it’s in their blood! While the web-based educational links and resources of rural water assistance organizations are certainly valuable, it is often person-to-person contact that makes the difference in a hands-on emergency.

RCAP Executive Director Nathan Ohle echoes that sentiment. “We typically work with communities of fewer than 10,000 people, the average size being around 2,500 people,” he says.  “As an organization, we have a very small national staff, but the power and the impact that we have really comes through the folks on the ground.”  The Circuit Rider program is one of multiple types of assistance his organization has to offer to small, rural water utilities.

Funded through both the USDA and the EPA, RCAP works through six regional partners who cumulatively have some 200 people in the field to deliver the services.  “We have folks located across every state, plus Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, doing this work on a daily basis, building relationships with communities, spending the time with them, and providing technical assistance,” Ohle explains. RCAP also manages the USDA’s Solid Waste Management Program, helping with the evaluation, operation, maintenance, and closure of landfill sites to reduce or eliminate pollution of water resources.

Ohle defines technical assistance as anything from operations of the water systems themselves, to the financial management of the system to securing resources to improve systems, to mapping systems for communities. “We do the work that we do to ensure that they understand how to operate their systems, but even more important to make sure they’re sustainable in the long run,” he says. “That includes having good conversations — and tough conversations — and educating not only mayors, city council members, and water board members, but also the community itself, to understand the costs of operating their systems effectively.”

Get Connected — Spread The Word

“We do get referrals through the USDA and EPA,” notes Ohle, “but we also work through word of mouth, which in rural communities is often the most powerful introduction into a community.”

In that sense, anyone involved in water or wastewater operations can be a conduit to improvement for small, rural water systems by sharing information about resources such as the Circuit Rider program and state or national rural water associations. That helping hand can come through work associates from neighboring water utilities, community leaders, state association members, even manufacturer sales representatives who can relate successful experiences from one utility to another.

Image credit: "Barstow City Limits" Nicolas Henderson © 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: