Connecting Waterpeople

The key to solving small-town America’s impending water crisis

  • The key to solving small-town America’s impending water crisis

About the blog

Chris Shaffner
Chris Shaffner is the senior vice president of the Water and Community Facilities division at CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America.
Schneider Electric

In late March, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee OK’d legislation meant to shore up aging United States water infrastructure. In total, lawmakers allocated more than $35 billion toward fixing water-related issues, namely replacing millions of lead water pipes — an issue largely supported by voters no matter their political party, community type, or geographical region.

Given that there are no safe levels of lead in water, this is a solid start. Nevertheless, addressing this pressing issue requires more all-encompassing legislation surrounding water infrastructure in rural communities. From 2014 onward, the conversation about water quality in America has mainly centered around cities like Flint, Michigan: municipalities with metro populations in (or near) the hundreds of thousands. But the unfortunate reality is that our current water quality issues span far beyond urban settings.

According to the American Bar Association, more than 90 percent of America’s publicly owned water systems serve communities of fewer than 10,000. If the recent extreme weather event in Texas taught us anything, it is that many of these systems are faltering. As of Feb. 22, 2021, NBC News reported that almost 8.8 million people were still under a boil water notice, and another 120,000 lacked any water service. Small, remote towns were hit particularly hard.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates it’ll cost $190 billion to shore up this aging infrastructure over the coming decades. With this price tag, it’s only a matter of time until countless small towns across America find themselves in the throes of a public health crisis due to poor water quality.

Even though utility privatization could accelerate these much-needed updates in some cases, the fragile economic state of many rural communities still demands a coordinated public-owned approach. With the majority of rural areas experiencing higher poverty and lower job growth rates than their urban counterparts, any solution that places the financial burden of water system upgrades exclusively on residents simply won’t work. With this in mind, it’s time for the federal government itself to aggressively invest in rural water infrastructure.

Two federal agencies hold the key to solving small-town America’s water quality issues: the EPA and the USDA. The EPA has a very broad focus and serves the entire nation — rural and urban. Some of the agency’s $6.7 billion budget goes toward addressing local environmental concerns such as water quality, but the bulk of its resources are devoted to creating and enforcing environmental laws and regulatory compliance.

Meanwhile, one of the USDA’s primary priorities is to help rural economies thrive. With the help of its annual budget, this agency’s bread and butter is issuing traditional loans to small towns to help them improve essential services such as schools, hospitals and utility systems.

Last year, both agencies also published updates surrounding water improvement-related funding initiatives. The EPA recently expanded its Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program by $6 billion, and the USDA published news of its $281 million investment toward water improvement projects in rural communities across 36 states and in Puerto Rico.

These are certainly positive developments. But they hardly put a dent in the overall investment required to solve small-town America’s impending water quality crisis. At the same time, they are more reports of program progress rather than significant overhauls, and they might not highlight the full scope of these agencies’ efforts across the country.

States in need of infrastructure funding are often left navigating a complex system. Without a single funding source for infrastructure repairs and upgrades, they tend to apply for loans from the agency with the most responsive regional office and the most straightforward application process. By joining forces on water-improvement initiatives, though, the EPA and USDA can certainly make strides toward simplifying the funding application process.

Thankfully, this is already in our future: In February 2020, the EPA and USDA announced a formal effort to pool their collective resources and allocate funds to communities with faltering infrastructure. This memorandum of agreement “will help rural water systems face the challenges of aging infrastructure, workforce shortages, increasing costs, limited management capacity and declining rate bases.”

Similarly, before leaving office, former President Donald Trump announced the creation of an interagency water subcabinet to “promote efficient and effective coordination across agencies engaged in water-related matters and to prioritize actions to modernize and safeguard our water resources and infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, agencies combining forces should also think critically about applying a means test along the way. The largest proportion of government funding should go toward the rural areas that need it most. A majority of small towns simply cannot afford a public-private partnership, but the few that can shoulder the costs should be encouraged to pursue that option.

Agencies shouldn’t leave these towns high and dry, however: Offering federal assistance in other areas as a tradeoff is key. If a community agrees to rely on commercial markets for its water infrastructure, for instance, maybe it could receive priority scoring for other competitive grants (perhaps for a new community center or public school).

This process won’t be easy, and it definitely won’t be cheap. Regardless, the cost of this impending water crisis will far outweigh the cost of investing in solutions today. It’s time for the EPA and the USDA to collaborate and aggressively address small-town America’s crumbling water infrastructure while there’s still time to spare.

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