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.
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.