Keeping the Water Taps Running in Rural America

Keeping the Water Taps Running in Rural America
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“Infrastructure” is a new buzzword in official Washington. In the past, only engineers had to know about infrastructure. Now we all do. Barely a week goes by without some plaintive story about crumbling infrastructure in the United States: roads scarred with potholes and bridges ready to collapse. In a report earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a “D+” grade for our infrastructure. During the President’s campaign, he pledged $1 trillion of new funds for infrastructure. Not a dollar has materialized yet on his promise; but there’s always hope.

Water and wastewater infrastructure don’t come to mind as readily as do roads and bridges. That’s because it’s mostly underground, out of sight. But every now and then stories appear about 40+ year old treatment plants being replaced or water and sewer mains that were laid in the 19th Century.

But there is another side to the story that we never read or hear about.

In responding to a survey about innovative water finance programs, an executive in a major Southern state said he didn’t have the time to implement new programs because he spent all of his time working with the several hundred small water systems in his state that needed to do projects to maintain their water quality, had no money, and were losing population. Inferior water quality. No money. No jobs or ways to earn a living, and so losing population. This is the infrastructure story that is very real; but that nobody hears about. It is the water infrastructure story of rural America.

When the country was being settled, every town had to have their own water system. It was a matter of pride. Taking people off drinking water wells and septic tanks and putting them on piped-in water/wastewater services meant that the town government worked. These services were provided by a local water & sewer authority. Each authority had a board of directors and a general manager. These officials were appointed either by the mayor, the town council, or both. It was a great honor to serve on the authority’s board. A much sought after position. Same with the general manager.

So the board members are distinguished local citizens. And the general manager is a well-respected man about town. In addition to being the general manager of the authority, he might also be the town postmaster. He might even tend bar in the evenings, just to make ends meet. So this is the organization that now is delivering inferior or contaminated water to its customers. It needs to upgrade its treatment plant. But it has no money. There are no jobs; so it can’t raise rates. And because so many people have just left town, it’s not even taking in enough revenue to pay all its bills.

This is the very real infrastructure problem that many people in rural America are facing: bad water because the infrastructure that delivers it needs improvement or replacement.

What needs to happen to keep these water taps running in rural America?

There are two basic strategies. The first deals with consolidation. That will reduce costs and the need for new money. The second deals with finding new money for needed water quality projects.

To say that there are hundreds of small water systems in a state is a policymaker’s nightmare. How totally inefficient! But there they are. Why not consolidate them? Give away the town water system? No mayor or town council is about to give away one of the town jewels. So, the “Podunk Water Authority” is here to stay. It’s not going to be swallowed up into a regional system.

Well if the authority itself and its distinguished board of directors are here to say, how about their contracting with a regional water institution to provide the services they need? They can hire outside operators. This can work. The town isn’t going to give away its water authority. Instead, we can just consolidate operations by contract. Operational consolidation may well be the way of the future for rural American water systems.

How about money? Even lowering the cost by regional consolidation won’t eliminate the need for money to maintain the system and restore water quality. It is an old story, but outside money is what is needed and there are only two sources of outside money: the state and federal governments.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, there was a federal grant program that pumped $70 billion of grants into sewage treatment plants. In terms of pollution abatement, it was a huge success. But it caused overbuilding and created dependence. Our rural systems don’t need either.

Instead, they need to get the money close to home. What is needed are state funds that can help pay not just for rural water infrastructure but also “green infrastructure” on private property and, most importantly, agricultural runoff projects on privately owned farms. Farmers aren’t going to pay for projects on their property. No urban pastor wants to take the money out of the collection plate to pay for green infrastructure on church property.

Only one state has such a fund, Maryland. The politicians call it the Bay Restoration Fee. Since the “fee” is based on the number of toilets in an average home, the media and the people of Maryland call it the “flush tax”. The point is that these funds are available to pay for water infrastructure projects where there is no other money.

Funds like these, along with operational consolidation, are what is needed to keep the water taps running in rural America.

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