ORLANDO, Fla. – The National Rural Water Association opened the 2016 WaterPro Conference with a morning session on Sept. 12 in Orlando, Fla. The opening included speeches from NRWA President Charles Hilton, Rural Utilities Service Administrator Brandon McBride and NRWA CEO Sam Wade.
The speeches examined the past, present and future of Rural Water, highlighting accomplishments and raising concerns for the future.
President Hilton, who describes himself as a nerd and an organic chemist, raised concerns about both rural America’s declining population and its diminished influence in national politics. He does see Rural Water as a way to sustain rural communities.
“We’ve discovered that if we put the proper utilities in, and we do the things the cities do, we can keep our children at home,” he said. “We can bring back jobs to Rural America.”
When communities have the utilities and infrastructure in place to support growing business, they can leverage other advantages like lower costs and a rural population to create jobs.
“We’re finding out that industries like to hire rural folks,” Hilton explained. “Why? Because of their work ethic.”
Hilton sees Rural Water as a mechanism to support other small communities. He explained that his motivations have always been deep and more personal.
“My dream, always, was when my daughter graduated college that she would come home and stay there,” Hilton said. “I’m proud to say she lives a quarter of a mile from me, and is on the same water system that I’ve managed for the last 38 years. But without water that is available in those areas, and without the jobs that are available because of the water lines and sewer lines, she would not have stayed home. She would have to go somewhere else.”
While Hilton sees the power of water infrastructure to strengthen small and rural communities, he recognizes significant challenges for small utilities.
Using a personal example from his own utility, Hilton explained how maintenance, regulatory costs and public health compete for limited finances and limited attention. Hilton’s South Carolina utility had planned to extend service to a very rural, very low income community. The concern was that the corrosive water from their residential wells and the pipes in their old home would lead to lead and copper contamination. It was a good project for public health but it would be financially difficult.
“If I could borrow the money for a thousand years I could never afford to pay it back,” Hilton said for the project. “It was just something, we would have to do.”
Those plans were complicated by an unexpected microbial monitoring violation.
“Last year I had my first MCL violation in a number of years,” Hilton explained. “It cost me a quarter of a million dollars to fix it. Fortunately, our utility is strong financially, we pulled it out of reserves and we fixed the problem.”
Unfortunately, correcting the MCL violation pulled resources that were planned for new service to the small, needy community.
“I had to take money out of that project and put it into [the MCL] project,” Hilton said. “Did I do the right thing? Well I did what I had to do.”
Hilton emphasized the primary responsibility of the water industry was to protect public health. He wondered though, how difficult it would be for utilities to expand service, when many of them struggled to maintain the infrastructure they had; or how they could bear an increasing regulatory burden when treatment was already so costly.
“It is a difficult time that we live in,” Hilton said.
“I truly believe because of the people in this room, that we will meet these challenges.”
Administrator McBride opened his speech by highlighting the success of USDA’s partnership with Rural Water. Rural Water borrower delinquencies are at historic lows, including 10% that are more financially stable than three years ago. Numerous systems have also improved their energy efficiency through a Rural Water energy audit program.
All of these programs provide services to rural communities that are often taken for granted.
“A lot of times, the things that we do at RUS, are things that people take for granted: they take for granted that when you flip the switch the lights come on, that when you open the tap they’re going to have safe drinking water and increasingly they expect, they’ll be able to get online and check their Facebook,” McBride said. “All of those things, if you grew up in a rural community, you know not to take for granted.
“The work you all do each and every day is important and I appreciated your efforts.”
McBride also lauded Rural Water’s efforts in emergency response, including recent floods.
“The work that you all do in responding to emergencies can’t be overstated. It’s so important,” he said.
Rural Water’s work in the field is complimented by efforts in advocating for rural and small utilities. These are important activities for Rural Water moving into the future.
“What happens in rural, is important to what happens to our national economy,” McBride said. “You all have a responsibility not only to work with your water systems and serve your local communities but to make sure there is a rural voice heard in Washington D.C.”
He then spoke about Rural Water’s ancestors, beginning from eight states in the late 70s to a nation-wide organization that represents over 30,000 member utilities in all 50 states. To explain that success, he used a quote from Marvin Scherler, the first NRWA president, that was printed in a 1981 publication.
“We are occasionally asked why NRWA is successful. It’s not a secret. It’s the same plan we employ in business, in our lives and in other avenues we are concerned about. One of the ingredients is total commitment. This commitment is fueled by our persistent and dedicated pledge to help people obtain a dependable supply of safe water.”
“That commitment and that pledge is just as strong today,” Wade said.