Drinking Water | 4 MIN READ

What is the Most Important Business in Your Community?

April 30, 2024 By Dinah Foreman, Alabama State Coordinator, Communities Unlimited
Young businesswoman talking to a crowd

When doing board training, I often ask the audience, “What is the most important business in your community?” The answer always varies – the local manufacturing plant, the large tech distribution center, the big box store, etc. I rarely hear the answer I believe to be true – the community’s water and/or wastewater system. The fact is the larger businesses that are often identified as the “most important” would not be in the area if there were not a public water system (PWS), and many of these businesses require publicly owned treatment works (POTW) before they consider locating in a community. Therefore, the PWS and the POTW are the most important businesses in the community because they provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitary disposal to everyone in the service area as well as those visiting or passing through the community, and they are a major factor in the economic development in small, rural communities.

For the water and wastewater systems in small communities to succeed, the council/board and the customers must understand the value of the service these utilities provide. To understand the value, people must understand the benefits of these utilities to the community and the true cost of providing these services. This means the council/board must be transparent about the challenges their utility faces on an ongoing basis. These challenges directly relate to what the utility system must charge the customer for the water and/or wastewater services. Without educating the customers on these challenges, the customers may never realize what it takes to have a well-run water and/or sewer system in their community.

Some common challenges customers do not realize directly affect their water and sewer operations include personnel, regulations, and aging infrastructure. Most certified water and sewer operators are nearing retirement, and few young people are entering this field. This makes it hard for water and wastewater systems to hire qualified people. Many utilities are re-assessing their pay scale to attract qualified individuals and to keep the operators they currently employ. Many customers do not realize that regulations require the water and wastewater operators to be certified and have no idea the cost the utility faces to get operators trained and ready to take a certification exam.

New regulations are always challenging for small water and wastewater systems, such as Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) and per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for water systems and stricter discharge limits for wastewater. Even regulations in place for years can create compliance issues as temperatures rise and rainfall increases due to climate change. It often takes improving the current treatment techniques, major treatment plant upgrades, or other infrastructure improvements to meet or remain in compliance. Changes in treatment may require additional chemicals or a change in current ones, which can increase chemical costs for the system. Capital improvement projects normally require significant financial investment and years of planning.

Long-term planning is extremely important to water and wastewater systems. The lack of planning for adequate repair and replacement of major components in the utility system has led to major issues directly connected to aging infrastructure, such as water loss, inflow= and infiltration (I&I), and catastrophic pump failure. Aging infrastructure can also contribute to non-compliance with federal and state regulations such as the Disinfectantion Byproducts Rule (DBPR) and the Revised Total Coliform Rule (RTCR).

With so many challenges facing small water and wastewater systems, the council/board and staff must understand the need to be forthcoming about issues within the utility system to create stakeholders’ trust and support. Everyone must realize how important the water and wastewater systems are to the community and what it takes to keep the utilities running efficiently and providing safe drinking water and adequate sanitary disposal for everyone who lives in or visits the community. After all, the water and wastewater systems are the area’s most important businesses.

Funding for this assistance was provided by US EPA NPA 1 2022-2024.

By Dinah Foreman, Alabama State Coordinator, Communities Unlimited

More from the Drop of Knowledge