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Rural Matters 2012 Issue 1 - USDA and EPA encourage partnerships among water systems

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According to a recent study conducted by the American Water Works Association, repair and expansion of the U.S. drinking water system over the next 25 years will cost at least $1 trillion. This includes fixing leaky pipes, replacing pipelines and expanding water systems to accommodate growing populations.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, what should rural communities do when faced with increasing costs? One option to consider is partnerships among water systems. They are a way to build technical, managerial and financial capacity.

The Rural Utilities Service and Rural Development, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have launched a series of webinars on water-system partnerships. This effort is part of a USDA-EPA memorandum of agreement that was signed in August 2011 to promote the sustainability of rural water and wastewater systems.

As part of this cooperation, EPA and USDA agreed to tell communities and utilities through workshops and webinars about the array of tools that are available through partnerships and to encourage struggling water systems to explore all options that may be available to increase sustainability.

System partnerships can provide opportunities to collaborate on compliance solutions and operations and maintenance activities and to share costs with other, nearby systems, thereby enabling them to become financially sustainable.

The first webinar, titled Partnering Over Time: Vinton County Water joins Jackson County Water, took place on Oct. 26, 2011. It featured these two water systems in Ohio as their partnership evolved from informal cooperation to physical connection. The webinar’s presenters included:  Larry Foster from Jackson County Water; Jim Holtz, formerly from Vinton County Water and now a board member of Jackson County Water; David Douglas, Community Programs Director, USDA RD, Ohio; Sarah Wallace from Ohio EPA; and John Rauch from Great Lakes RCAP). The presenters discussed effective strategies that federal and state agencies can use in promoting sound partnerships. 

The partnership between the two systems began in 1992 when Jackson County Water provided used office equipment to Vinton County Water when it was created. Through the years, Jackson County Water continued to act as a good neighbor to Vinton County Water. The former was happy to provide assistance to the latter as long as it did not interfere with the former’s ability to run its system and stay in regulatory compliance.

This understanding laid the groundwork for their future partnership. What started as an informal partnership later evolved into a new kind of partnership when Vinton County Water decided to contract with Jackson County Water to operate its system.

Then the two systems began talking about the idea of selling Vinton County Water to Jackson County Water. Several parties played a role in facilitating this process. The USDA played a role in bringing the utilities together by organizing meetings to discuss merging the two water systems. Great Lakes RCAP facilitated the process by helping to determine the needs of both systems. RCAP completed a five-year forecast and rate recommendations for Vinton County Water and conducted visioning sessions with the utility. Ohio EPA was able to offer funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that included 80 percent principal forgiveness.

The effect of the merger of Vinton County Water and Jackson County Water was quality service to the systems’ users, compliance with EPA regulations, and affordable rates. Jackson County Water now has more capacity to serve its residents, and it can build on Vinton County Water’s infrastructure. 

Creating a water-system partnership is as simple as two or more systems working together to overcome challenges, build capacity, and to create a win-win situation for all systems.

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