By Mike Dimitriou, Water Remediation Technology
I’ve worked with small utilities across the U.S. for some time, and I can tell you they are struggling. They are facing a sustainability crisis so serious, because of so many challenges and lack of resources, that many believe they will be unable to continue in the future.
At last count, the U.S. EPA identified more than 166,000 public water systems and publicly owned treatment works serving less than 10,000 connections. Small and medium-sized utilities have always faced major obstacles in their efforts to supply drinking water and treat wastewater. It’s even harder now.
The challenges they face are no different than those faced by large utilities — meeting drinking water and wastewater regulations, finding and maintaining adequate water sources, maintaining aging distribution and collection systems, an aging and disappearing workforce, etc. But small systems have one major hurdle that makes their job that much harder: lack of financial options. The costs they face in order to deal with water scarcity, meet regulations, hire skilled operators, and deal with older infrastructure often are beyond their capabilities. Simply put, many do not have the ability to pay for what they need. The costs of all the demands are significantly greater than any funds they can raise. They lack the ratepayer base and associated tax base that larger populations have, and the resources those bring. Their ratepayers simply can’t afford it.
On top of that, many of these small water utilities, which are generally groundwater systems, now face the need to treat their water. Dwindling aquifers and changes in groundwater quality, combined with increases in contaminate levels of arsenic, nitrate, radiological, and even iron and manganese, are forcing treatment on utilities that do not have the organization, funds, or ratepayer base to handle it.
Since the start of my career, I’ve worked with small utilities and tried to help them meet their water quality and water supply needs. Many are my current clients and they are struggling. I am convinced that innovation is needed for small systems to remain viable. Innovation in technology and private investment is the answer.
As service providers, we can support these small utilities through the many innovative options we can offer. Technology is available right now to help them meet their most pressing needs.
Just as important, if not more so: Innovative operation and management of the system. Looking to new ways of financing their improvements as well as operations can offer help to many. These can include:
Many of these options have been done successfully by larger utilities; they are not new to them. But to small systems and many state regulators, this is new and different. If we are to keep small systems sustainable and working, we need to do things differently.
Mike Dimitriou is president of Water Remediation Technology and is a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Board of Directors.
Image credit: "20150723-NRCS-LSC-0009" U.S. Department of Agriculture © 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/