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

Checking Your System – for Free

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a full assessment of your water system, training for your employees and financial advice to help you prepare for the future? Wouldn’t it be even better if you could get it for free? We can check your water system for free.

All of that is possible, thanks to state and federal programs and third-party agencies, such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership affiliates. These services and more are available through the state and federal capacity development programs.

In this eBulletin, we’ll explain what capacity development is and how it can help your water system. We’ll also let you know about agencies that can help with your capacity development needs.

Capacity Development 101

The EPA defines capacity development as “a State effort to help drinking water systems improve their finances, management, infrastructure and operations so they can provide safe drinking water consistently, reliably and cost-effectively.” It says capacity development offers an “exceptionally flexible framework within which States and water systems can work together to ensure that systems acquire and maintain the technical, financial and managerial [capacity] to consistently achieve the health objectives of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act.”

In English, the program is designed to let state and third-party agencies help figure out the good and the not-so-good of a water system; determine the needs, the wants and which can be afforded; provide rate assessments and board and employee training and plan for the future.

Capacity development covers three main categories: technical, financial and managerial, referred to as “TFM assistance” by the EPA and state agencies. The idea is to ensure that water systems not only have the right equipment to provide safe drinking water to their customers, but they also have trained employees who can run and maintain the equipment in top form, as well as money for upkeep and future upgrades. It also ensures that water systems have a better shot of keeping in compliance with state and federal water regulations, a goal stated by the EPA in its explanation of capacity development.

Programs

These programs are funded through the federal EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. They pay for the capacity development, but actual improvements often must be funded elsewhere. However, some agencies also provide help to systems to find funding through state and federal grants.

The EPA gives states several suggestions for using the money in their capacity development programs. They include:

  • Providing incentive grants to plan for public water system regionalization or consolidation;
  • Establishing cooperative management programs to pair water systems needing help with those that can provide technical advice and assistance;
  • Contracting with third-party agencies to provide TFM assistance to water systems;
  • Establishing programs to promote new technologies, particularly to small water systems;
  • Contracting with third-party agencies to provide training courses.

Programs vary from state to state. The best way to find out what your state offers is to contact them. The EPA provides contacts for each state as part of an entire page of resources for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The link can be found below.

The EPA also provides training materials for each aspect of capacity development. The materials are in Microsoft PowerPoint (PPT) and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). The link to these materials is listed below as well.

What’s in it for me?

With all that capacity development programs entail, some may question whether such a program is worth all the time and effort.

Several states have noted improvement to their water systems through capacity development programs. In September 2005, reports were issued by the states to their governors detailing how that state’s capacity development strategy was working after the first six years.

Some of these reports are available online. One of the most detailed is from the state of Nebraska. The report, 19 pages with six attachments, outlines the state and federal requirements of the capacity development program, explains the state’s strategy for the program and discusses whether capacity development has proved successful.

In the Nebraska report, the Public Water System Compliance Data was compared between the years 2000 and 2004, the start of the state’s capacity development program through the year prior to the report. They found a drop in the number of systems that had total coliform violations over the years, from 29.5% of the state’s systems in violation in 2000 to 24.3% four years later.

The state of Nevada also provides a detailed report on its capacity development program, including a success story for one town.

Though technical issues, such as infrastructure, are a big problem for water systems, many of the capacity development reports cite managerial and financial issues as being more crippling. One reason is that systems may not realize how complicated things can become with incorrect rates or lack of emergency or master plans.

“While all systems are unique, the vast majority of water systems in Nevada still need assistance with managerial and financial principles and planning,” Nevada’s report states, for example. “Full cost pricing is required in order for a water system to fully function, as it should. Strategic planning is so critical to the success of a water system, yet many systems continue to move forward with no plan whatsoever.”

Those managerial and financial issues continue today, so much so that the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection has focused more on those aspects since the report was issued, said Adele Basham, manager of the Office of Financial Assistance at the DEP.

The capacity development program there includes helping water systems with their budgets and conducting water rate studies. The information is laid out in detail to help convince the town’s water board and residents that a rate increase is needed, Basham said.

“If the case is made about why, then it’s a lot easier, especially in places where they’re having problems – pressure problems, quality problems, that sort of thing,” she said.

Basham said that like most states, Nevada outsources much of its capacity development work to third-party agencies because of the state’s lack of employees to cover such a big task.

Most of the systems they’ve helped have shown improvement, she said. However, there are still plenty of challenges, especially with small water systems.

“There are a number of systems that are not aware that help is available, and for free,” she explained. “When they find out, they want it.”

Nevada uses its third-party outsources to help spread the word. Representatives also attend water conferences and talk about capacity development during water operator training sessions.

The success of the program can be hard to measure, especially in the case of preventing compliance issues rather than just solving them. Still, the state currently is compiling information for the next governor’s report, due in 2008.

Basham said she believes, even without hard numbers, that the capacity development program has been a success.

“I think it’s money well spent,” she said.

To the Rescue

Capacity development entails a lot, so much that water systems may feel overwhelmed by all the factors, requirements and paperwork. Luckily, there is help. Free help.

The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) provides free assistance for financial and managerial capacity development.

RCAP and its affiliates provide technical assistance and training, rate studies and aid in applying for and receiving funding for improvement projects.

Consider the village of Exeland, Wisconsin, population 212. The town first contacted WISCAP, the state RCAP affiliate, to help create an emergency response plan, said Katherine Cartwright, rural development specialist/engineer for WISCAP. The staff helped Exeland officials develop an emergency response plan and mutual aid agreements with three nearby communities.

WISCAP then got calls from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission, both of which encouraged the affiliate to work with Exeland on its water rates. The town had not raised its collection amount in years, Cartwright said. She called the village’s president and explained what WISCAP did. The agency did a rate study for the water system, outlined a rate system and helped Exeland get a thumbs-up from the Public Service Commission so it could enact its new rates.

WISCAP workers also helped Exeland inform its residents about the increase through news articles and fliers in the water bills, Cartwright said. They even helped the town find and hire a water operator. The town’s current operator attended a training class put on by WISCAP to help him obtain certification.

It’s a little early to see the full results of WISCAP’s efforts, said Susan Kopras, president of the village. The water rates didn’t take effect until January, and residents are only billed every three months. Still, Kopras was optimistic that the plans and programs put in place through the capacity development work will help the water system. The new rates, the first in 25 years, will be used to cover the well-based water system’s costs.

“It worked out fine,” Kopras said of their work with WISCAP. “They always do a good job for us.”