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This blog was prepared by Andrea Sospenzo, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina. Andrea is the Outreach Assistant for the Environmental Finance Center.

Much of the dialogue around the nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs focuses on the enormous estimates associated with repairing and rehabilitating existing systems. But for some families, the challenge hits much closer to home. For them, the obstacle has less to do with the billion-dollar cost of fixing our nation’s existing water systems, and much more to do with the cost of running water lines from existing systems to their neighborhoods.

Extending water lines to rural areas and small neighborhoods that are adjacent to areas currently served by a local water utility can be surprisingly challenging, particularly when the utility is a municipal water system and the unserved area is outside of the city’s boundaries. These underserved communities are home to people who would like to receive water service from the local utility, but have been unable to convince the utility to extend water lines to their neighborhoods. In some cases, homes are served by private wells with contaminated groundwater, endangering the health of the residents and increasing the urgency of finding a solution.

As with any environmental issue, the challenges associated with bringing water service to underserved communities are diverse. In some cases, the major obstacle is technical or policy driven (for example, some cities refuse to provide services to areas unless they agree to become part of the city). But as we often find in our work, in many cases the main obstacle is figuring out who should pay for the costs of the extension.

Who is Impacted?

Identifying the many obstacles and possible solutions to incentivize water systems to connect to underserved communities was the subject of a two-day summit held by the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative. During the summit, I was able to speak to David Caldwell, committee chair member of the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition, an organization that advocates for environmental justice for the Rogers-Eubanks community. David grew up in the community, located right outside the limits of the Town of Chapel Hill. He was born during the time of integration in a historically African American community and shared with me his personal fight for equality. In 1972, Orange County purchased 80 acres of land in the Rogers-Eubanks community to construct a landfill and in exchange, according to David, they promised this low-income neighborhood sidewalks, streetlights and public water and sewer lines. Now, over 40 years later, the majority of the community is still without these services. In 2009, the UNC Gillings School of Public Health found evidence of fecal contamination and E. coli bacteria in the wells of the Rogers-Eubanks community, and their drinking water missed EPA standards for metal and total coliform. Even after the landfill closed in June of 2013, the Rogers-Eubanks community continues to fight for access to centralized drinking water and sewer services as a means to ensure the health of themselves and their families. The Rogers-Eubanks community is only one example of many throughout the state that face this complicated public health challenge.

The Issue

On July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the right to safe drinking water through Resolution 64/292. In the United States, the regulatory driver for providing safe drinking water has mostly commonly been the Safe Drinking Water Act; however, private wells are currently unregulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act and therefore may not always meet EPA drinking water standards. The Summit Safe Water from Every Tap conference convened from across the state to discuss where North Carolina stands nearly four decades after Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act and to assess issues as to why some residents still lack access to centralized water systems.

To me, the solution seems simple: if private wells are the source of contaminated water, why don’t utilities extend their water and sewer lines to underserved communities? That way, bordering communities can have access to municipal drinking water, which is regulated by the EPA. I learned in the discussions that day that unfortunately, it’s not that easy. While federal and state governments drive regulation of water, the governance of water systems falls on local governments, whose fiscal responsibility ends at their jurisdiction borders. Local and state officials are aware of the health risks associated with private well and sewage systems, but they aren’t sure about where to get the funding to extend water and sewer lines to underserved communities.

What’s the Solution?

Well, right now I don’t believe there is one right answer. Underserved communities and their potential water service providers have been working to try to develop funding opportunities for quite some time, but are continuing to come up short. Federal and state funding programs, particularly grant programs, have helped fund many service extensions, but these programs have evolved over time and become more dependent on loans than grants.

One of the few remaining pure grant programs available for these situations is the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Infrastructure program funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered by state level agencies such as the North Carolina Division of Water Infrastructure. This program was designed specifically to aid low to moderate-income communities. It provides funds for community and economic development activities, primarily used for housing rehabilitation and public infrastructure projects, such as water and sewer service extension. Even with a grant, there are costs. If I’ve learned anything since starting my job at the EFC, it’s that grants are not “free. Applying for a grant takes planning and is a time consuming process and requires commitment on behalf of the community and the extending utility.

Unfortunately the cost of running water lines is only part of the cost equation. One of the largest barriers for communities outside city boundaries is paying the cost of running plumbing on their property and paying the municipal connection fees. In some areas, connection fees can be nearly doubled for homes outside the municipal boundaries. Many underserved communities are also impoverished and may not be able to afford these connection fees. Finally, once connected, households accustomed to getting well water without a monthly bill must begin paying monthly water utility bills, which in many areas are set at rates as high as two times what an inside-city customer would pay. A big concern of utilities providing water to underserved communities is the future risk of households not being able to pay their water bill. Members of unserved communities may differ in their interest in taking on these new recurring financial commitments even if the actual extension comes at no or little cost.           

It’s Up to Us

Finding sources of funding for these communities who can’t afford water or sewer services is difficult, but also crucial. If you have any ideas as to how funding can be created to extend water and sewer lines to unserved communities, feel free to comment below.

5 Responses to “The Challenge of Extending Water Service to the Underserved”

  1. Nabhan

    More than 2,000,000 people in the united states live without access to safe drinking water, and sanitation and many more people in the other parts of the world don’t have access to clean water as well. I am glad you are talking about this important and challenging topic because we need more people to be aware of how much of a problem this is and how it’s affecting us. I live in a suburban area in Orange County, CA, and have access to clean water, but other people in my community are not as fortunate as me, and its not fair. My partners and I are trying to bring awareness to this crisis in our community. Our mission is to advocate for the addition of clean water in low-income families around the Orange County Area. I also would like to say that many people aren’t aware of this issue, and I am glad that you are writing about how we need to find a solution and sources of funding for communities that can’t afford water services. Also, that is the reason why I decided to address this issue within our community and try to raise people’s awareness on how many people don’t have access to clean water and that we need to help those people.

  2. Richard

    Thanks for taking on this important and challenging topic. I think your sentence “On July 28, 2010, the US General Assembly recognized the right to safe drinking water …” should read “the UN General Assembly.” As far as I know, neither the US Congress nor the NC General Assembly have explicitly recognized safe drinking water as a basic human right. Even if they did, the questions would remain: who pays for the infrastructure and the ongoing costs of service delivery? So keep up the good work on those questions….

  3. Frank Roth

    My recommendation for a solution is for federal agencies (EPA, USDA) to change their affordability criteria for disadvantaged communities. Instead of the criteria being based on the service area of the applicant, change it so that eligible project areas would include portions within existing service areas or areas located outside the boundaries of a service area of the applicant. With this change, a larger or regional utility (serving as fiscal agent of a disadvantaged community) could receive grant funding and extend water/sewer service to existing residents in the unserved, disadvantaged portion of a community. This would make the project financially feasible and ensure that the existing ratepayers are not subsidizing the extension of services outside of the service boundary.

    Also, federal guidelines should not rely on Census data which does not work for rural areas because both tracts and block groups are larger than the unincorporated community and sometimes includes affluent areas. Instead, provide the option to use a door-to-door median household income survey for the project area conducted by a neutral or independent agency like the Rural Water Association. The survey would provide a more accurate representation of the affected population that would receive the grant funds for constructing the infrastructure. With more grant funding, this will lower the loan portion of the funding request and the regional utility can be reimbursed through connection fees to pay back the loan.

    In 2013, the Southwest Environmental Finance Center conducted research in several states evaluating their Disadvantaged Community eligibility and the State’s use of income data for just those customers that are being served by a project rather than a whole census track or community. Although there has been variation among states regarding survey methodology; there is precedence for utilizing only income levels for customers who are served by the system. States in this category include: Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, Ohio, Utah, and Texas. The Texas Water Development Board has a “Disadvantaged Portion of a Service Area Policy” that allows portions of a service area to be considered a Disadvantaged Community. The types of projects eligible for funding are those providing new service to existing residents in unserved areas.

    With more than 40,000 small water systems in the United States and with recent changes in climate variability, it makes sense more than ever for these small systems to regionalize. And for those communities without public systems, give regional utilities that ability to provide assistance by changing the dated affordability criteria.

  4. Bob

    In my previous position our water system inherited substandard infrastructure and spent our resources bringing things into specifications. I am currently trying to educate our city council to partner with these home owner association to install infrastructure to current city specifications before allowing them the service. This will insure a sound construction practice and reduce maintenance so the under served area can afford the extra cost charged for services outside the corporate limits.

  5. Dan Ryan

    Is there a county by county map that reflects the location of these areas that lack clean water? I think if we have a map like that the state can then focus on meeting those who truly need the service. My gut tells me that many locations in rural areas will always have to rely on private wells, but you really can’t see what is needed or what is required without a complete map study.

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