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Small, rural water systems share many of the same problems as their big-city cousins — demanding regulatory compliance, outdated rate structures, aging infrastructure, and aging workforces.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.
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: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/