Rural communities make up approximately 97% of U.S. land and provide essential resources, like agriculture, renewable energy and recreational areas. Rural water providers and small water treatment plants are critical to the communities they serve. Without a reliable system to provide potable water, the businesses and schools that rely on public water utilities couldn’t function, and the towns and cities wouldn’t be able to thrive. 

While we can’t overstate the importance of clean, accessible water, many water and wastewater utilities in these areas struggle to replace aging water systems and stay compliant. 

According to the National Resources Defense Council, systems that serve fewer than 3,300 people made up 80% of Safe Drinking Water Act violations. These violations rarely occur due to a lack of care from management and operators, but rather, a lack of resources, short-term financial planning and high workforce turnover. 

Three Challenges for Small and Rural Water Utilities

1. Lack of Resources

Lack of resources is the most significant challenge small utilities face. With a smaller group of customers to draw from, the amount of income is lower. Less income gives water and wastewater management companies less capital to work with whenever they need to perform significant repairs or replace water systems. 

Other resources these utilities lack are access to training, up-to-date technology and enough staff members to run a small water treatment plant efficiently. Rather than improving their water delivery, most small utilities have to focus on keeping their distribution network running. The pressure of delivering the base product of clean water with a low budget and few staff members can put goals for improvement on hold.

2. Financial Management and Short-Term Planning

When the budget gets tight, smart spending can move smaller utilities toward their goals, and poor spending choices can exacerbate problems. The margin for error is slim. Budgets with little foresight for future projects can lead to significant maintenance problems with nothing to cover the costs of an overhaul. Short-sited financial planning can lead to borrowing money that the small water treatment plant can’t pay off.

Even with excellent financial guidance, many water systems are unable to improve because they have no flexibility in their rates. Some rural water utilities are strongly encouraged by community decision-makers, like city council members or mayors, to use unfavorable billing practices to keep prices artificially low. 

One example of a town in North Carolina showed how easy it is for rural utilities to fall into this path. While the town’s citizens may appreciate the low bills upfront, lower water quality and price spikes for repairs are worse in the long run.

3. Workforce Shortages and Lack of Experienced Management

Financial constraints don’t just lead to a shortage of funds for repairs and maintenance, but also can limit available pay for enough staff members and experienced management. Water and wastewater operators are vital to the community. Rural utilities usually need to offer incentives to draw talent to their areas and prevent them from leaving for opportunities in bigger cities. 

Plus, water and wastewater workforce shortages are growing across the board. Utilities will need to replace up to 3 million workers in the next decade. A smaller talent pool in rural areas compounds this issue.

Two Ways Rural Water and Wastewater Management Companies Responding?

As rural water and wastewater companies address these problems, two solutions have proven to be effective: consolidation and collaboration with other water utilities or hiring a water management and operations consultant

1. Consolidation and Collaboration for Water Utilities

Consolidation and collaboration with other water companies is a trend that is increasingly prevalent as these rural utilities find it difficult to sustain their operations alone. Whenever these systems combine their resources, they can provide better service to their communities. However, the biggest downside to merging utilities is the city can lose control over its water system, which creates problems later on.

2. Water Management and Operations Consultants

Contracting a water and wastewater management consultant can help a small or rural community maintain control of their water system. Consultants can offer aid from a professional, technical and financial perspective. An excellent consultant can help rural communities identify pain points, map out solutions and execute a plan to reach the rural utility’s goal. 
Are you looking for an excellent water management and operations company to help your rural utility get back on track to provide high-quality water and service to your community? Contact Alliance Water Resources today. Alliance Water Resources brings excellent service, the latest water treatment techniques and planning that will set up your utility for long-term success.