Small Water System Infrastructure Must be Part of Our Country’s COVID Recovery

May 27, 2020 | Blog, COVID-19

By: Nathan Ohle, RCAP CEO & Radhika Fox, US Water Alliance CEO

Every community – big and small, rural and urban – relies on water. Water is a public health and sanitation issue, as well as economic, agricultural, and recreational issue. No community can thrive without access to water. While most people in the United States can access water without concerns about its safety or affordability, many communities struggle daily to access clean, safe, affordable water.

Of the approximately 150,000 public water systems in the United States, more than 97 percent serve small communities of 10,000 or fewer people. Smaller communities and the smaller water systems that serve them have unique challenges and perspectives, as well as valuable relationships and a collaborative spirit that can serve every community well during a crisis. On a national level, leaders need to embrace that attitude and work to ensure every community – whether it has a population of a hundred or a hundred thousand – has access to safe, affordable, and reliable water.

As unemployment reaches historic levels, water utilities are supporting customers by halting shutoffs, reconnecting service, and expanding bill assistance, all while swallowing major losses in revenue. Water providers that are doing the right thing for every customer are going to need support from federal and state partners in the short and long term. While serving residential customers is a priority, commercial use is plummeting right now, dramatically impacting the revenue flowing into utilities. Raftelis and the American Water Works Association just released a report estimating drinking water utilities may see $14 billion in revenue reduction from closed businesses and struggling consumers. That does not include the massive losses that wastewater utilities, which provide vital sanitation services, are also experiencing.  

Small water systems are likely to need extra support since they have a smaller customer base to cover fixed costs and fewer workers to rely on when others fall ill. Such small systems will need new programs to help them to weather the storm or partner with surrounding communities to drive economies of scale. Some states have used incentives to effectively encourage regional partnerships between smaller systems. For example, the Ohio state revolving loan funds provides principal forgiveness on loans supporting projects that involve regionalization of drinking water facilities. Financial incentives are an important way to encourage regional projects and make them feasible, and principal forgiveness is vital for financially strapped communities.

The cost of inaction to help secure utilities of all sizes is dire. Many of us with water service can’t imagine the alternative, but estimates are that at least two million people in America are living without water service, including people in all 50 states. The problem is particularly acute in some deep rural areas and places like the Navajo Nation. We’ve seen COVID-19 rates in those areas in particular spike to alarming levels, and not having water for sanitation is contributing to the rapid spread of the disease. We need to ensure that recovery from COVID prioritizes closing the gap in water access so no community has to live without water in America.

Smart investments in water will also help the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.  The nation’s water infrastructure is critical for public health, yet it is aging and failing. Investing in our water infrastructure to bring all systems up to a more modern, reliable state, would create more than 1.5 million jobs and generate over $260 billion in economic activity annually. Major investment in water systems is a smart and sustainable way to fuel a recovery that builds the country’s resilience and helps communities to thrive. The nation’s water struggles are interconnected. We cannot require utilities to provide water to everyone without providing more support to utilities. We cannot turn a blind eye to the people who were living without water before the COVID crisis when we plan our recovery from the COVID crisis. A true recovery will require us to tackle complicated challenges, but to recognize different communities will need different kinds of assistance and support. Leaders at the local, state, and federal level will need to put aside political differences and prioritize the health and safety of everyone to get this done. It is time to ensure everyone, regardless of where they live or where they get their water from, have equitable access to safe, reliable water and sanitation.