The online RCAP Resources Library has a variety of resources that are useful to small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems.

Based on a True Story

Water and wastewater systems have it tough nowadays.

With an aging infrastructure and an ailing economy, it’s not easy to keep a system in compliance or make costly improvements or expansions. Sometimes, a system needs a little help, or just some good advice.

As it turns out, that help is available, and it’s free.

In this edition of eBulletin, we’ll tell the true stories of three small systems with big water or wastewater problems, and we’ll explain how representatives of the Rural Communities Assistance Partnership were able to help these systems solve their problems in the most cost-efficient ways.

While the town’s names won’t be used, the towns’ situations offer prime examples of how RCAP affiliates can help find solutions to a variety of problems.

Case Study #1

We’ll move from East to West in our journey, starting in a central state where a rural city had a bit of a discharge problem.

The city had a good-sized population, nearly 8,000. But with a growing population and occasional discharge from the local water plant, the system had problems keeping within its discharge limits on pollutants. Eventually, the system began regularly exceeding those limits, which raised the eyebrows of the EPA – and brought the threat of fines.

So officials in the wastewater system contacted their local RCAP representative for help. System officials had plans for major capital improvements, but they had to find a way to keep from exceeding their discharge limits until the improvements were complete.

The RCAP affiliate went to work. The first order of business was to analyze the plant itself and figure out what could be done to keep the system within discharge permit limits. The RCAP representative found several things here and there that could be altered or improved with little to no cost. These tweaks helped improve system performance as work began on the new project.

The RCAP representative also took a look at the planned capital improvements. He made suggestions there as well, including some changes that would save the system thousands of dollars in construction costs without decreasing the capacity of the new system.

The system analysis kept it within limits as the updates were completed. Today, that wastewater system has nearly doubled its capacity, and a backup within the system means overflow won’t be a problem, even on the rainiest of days.

In this case, a system analysis and operational changes saved a wastewater system from hefty fines. This is one of many duties RCAP representatives can perform, free of charge, to water and wastewater systems. Often, there are traditional methods performed within a system that can be made more efficient.

We all know it is sometimes hard to see such details when we look at them every day, but an outside eye can spot these details and can make suggestions on how to change or improve them. These details can range from methods of running the water or wastewater pumping system to handling billing and delinquent accounts. A thorough analysis of these methods could yield changes that could save the system time, energy and even money.

If you think your system is not as efficient as it could be, or if you’re having problems meeting permit requirements, try giving your local RCAP affiliate a call. The web site for each region is listed below.

Additional Resources
Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP)
RCAP Solutions (Northeast)
Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc. (Southeast)
Community Resource Group (Southern)
WSOS Community Action Commission (Great Lakes)
Midwest Assistance Program (Midwest)
Rural Community Assistance Corporation (West)

Case Study #2

For the next case, we head into the deep South. A small water association provided about 400 water hookups for the area’s 1,000 people. But the water system was having trouble with its Capacity Development Rating. The local health department suggested the system contact the state representative for the southern RCAP affiliate.

The water system wasn’t having too much trouble with the nuts and bolts. It was management, training and operations that were causing problems with the Capacity Development Rating.
Once again, RCAP stepped in and started with an analysis of the water system, from the equipment used to the employees’ training to the methods of recordkeeping.

The RCAP representative made recommendations to update the associations bylaws, administrative policies and compliance record handling. The representative also offered another free service – onsite training for workers, from the water operator to the recordkeepers. Several employees received various training to improve their system’s rating. One staff member even earned a managers’ license as a result.

The result was a 150% increase in the system’s Capacity Development Rating.

Several months later, the association called upon RCAP again. This time, they wanted to take a look at their rate system to see if the long-term sustainability could be improved. One of RCAP’s free services is a rate study. RCAP will look at the rate history of the system and compare the rates to similar systems in the area. RCAP also will determine if the rate structure is adequate to cover expenses now and in the future, and will recommend rate changes if needed. RCAP will even help systems explain new rates to its customers through public meetings and literature.

The water association’s rate system, as it turned out, did need some changes to cover its planned expansion. Once the new rates were implemented, another study was conducted that showed the rates more than covered the planned expansion as well as the systems expected expenses.

In the end, the recommendations, assistance and training provided by the RCAP representative helped the small water system go from a distressed Capacity Development Rating to a 5.0 – a perfect rating.

These changes didn’t take place right away. In this case, the RCAP affiliate helped the water association over several years, and continues to assist the system when called. That is another benefit to using the services of RCAP – it’s not a one-shot deal. Whether the problem is short-term or if several problems arise over a period of several years, the RCAP representative is available to help.

RCAP representatives are even available here, through the Safe Drinking Water Trust. If you just have a quick question or two, try the Ask the Expert link. Or if you need more information on the revolving loan fund, contact the administrators of the fund, the RCAP southern affiliate Community Resource Group, or simply click on the Financial Assistance link below.

Case Study #3

Finally, we head west for our final case study. This one involves a small town near the coast. The residents barely reach 250 in number, many of them older. They’re not terrible far from a few bigger towns, but they’re far enough out to be isolated.

Being a coastal town, they’ve had their fair share of coastal weather, including a recent hurricane. The massive storm tore trees from the ground, damaging water lines throughout the system.
The system, though small, was prepared for this. They had just enough cash stashed away to pay for unexpected repairs. But the massive amounts of damage was more than anyone expected, and the repairs eventually drained the town’s savings to near nothing.

So of course, the inevitable had to happen. Like a car that falls apart only days out of its warranty, a big repair had to come along just as the last of the spare cash was used.

The well broke.

Specifically, the well casing was damaged, rendering the town’s only source of water useless. What little was stored was quickly gone, leaving the entire town without water. No water for toilets, no water for baths, no water for dishes, no water for cooking. No water for drinking.

The town didn’t sit back and wait for a solution. Officials went to the bank to ask for a loan to build a new well. They needed cash as quickly as possible, and the bank was a quick solution.
A small town, low-income, almost no cash reserves, limited collateral. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

With the bank loan rejected, the small system then looked for local agencies that might be able to help. They found a local rural assistance agency that provided funding for various projects. The town quickly applied for a grant, adding that it was an emergency situation and the application needed expediting. Unfortunately, the town learned that even with an emergency application, it still could be months before they saw a penny.

By this time, officials were starting to hear reports of health issues arising from the use of contaminated water in the town. The situation was even more dire than before.

The town continued to contact various state agencies for any assistance. One agency sent the town to an RCAP affiliate.

The RCAP affiliate began working immediately. They worked with the rural assistance agency to set up a promise of reimbursement from the grant the town was expected to receive. RCAP then sent an emergency loan request through. In less than a week, the town had approval and began digging its new well. The loan was closed, and a contingency plan was set up in case the grant reimbursement fell through. RCAP worked with the town to draw up a low-interest loan term they could repay should the grant not take care of the loan.

This story may seem to far-fetched to be true, but it did happen. It’s an extreme example of the potential disasters water systems can face. In this case, the system did everything right, working diligently to get money for a new well and get water back to its customers as fast as possible. But with so many pursestraps tightened nowadays, that’s not an easy task.

The system’s dire need, its strong attempts to correct the problem itself and its reputation for minding its finances well helped the system get the emergency loan it needed.

This system gives a great example of how best to handle a crisis like this. The biggest advice – ask around. Every state has local and state agencies that may be able to help, and most have branches of federal agencies that can lend a hand.

RCAP can help as well. A representative is available for every state and Puerto Rico. RCAP affiliates can provide advice, assist in filling out applications for regular or emergency funding and may even be able to provide an emergency loan in situations where time is of the essence. They also provide expert recommendations and assistance to help manage a system, as well as onsite training to help make the employees’ jobs easier.

Best of all, the services provided by RCAP are free of charge to water and wastewater systems.

So if you can relate to any of our three small towns, just pick up a phone or send us an e-mail. We’re here to help.