NRWA Statement on Small Water Systems – False Narrative

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) cautions policymakers against accepting the “false narrative” that small and rural community water systems are unsustainable and new federal statutory and regulatory authority to usurp local governments’ authority is the answer.

This false narrative is not new. It has been around since the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. Today, the narrative continues to be promoted from self-serving interests who stand to financially benefit from additional mandatory consolidation and privatization of small community water utilities. Some regulatory agencies are also supporting this narrative because of the administrative burden associated with the larger number of small community water systems.

Some of the more inaccurate statements made recently include the claims that (1) water utilities with fewer than 6,000 connections are unsustainable, (2) municipalities (i.e. mayors) should not be allowed to govern water utilities, and (3) small water utilities are unsustainable because they cannot afford to install advanced technology. These statements are being used to urge federal agencies and Congress to enact new legislation and policy to solve these perceived and unfounded problems at the expense of locally-preferred solutions.

Federal agency data contradicts these arguments and actually demonstrates widespread success in sustainability of small water utilities. The President’s FY 2019 Budget justification for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Waste Disposal programs states that more than 93% of the current Rural Development portfolio of 15,536 loans (totaling $12.5 billion) met the Agency’s sustainability ratios. It is also important to note that USDA’s sustainability standard is the most rigorous standard of any federal agency.

Other federal data also undermines the argument that more Washington authority is needed to direct small community consolidation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data shows that voluntary consolidation is occurring through the local decision-making process when it is in the best interest of the local citizens. An analysis of EPA’s water system database (EPA SDWIS) shows there are 3,805 fewer community water systems (CWS) today (50,259 CWSs) than in 2000 (54,064 CWSs) and 1,851 fewer community water systems than 10 years ago (52,110 CWSs).

The decision for any local government to privatize, consolidate, or enter into any partnership should be determined at the discretion of local citizens. There is nothing inherently more efficient or more economical in the operation of a private water utility versus a public-governmental water utility. We encourage every community regardless of size or type of governmental structure to continually evaluate all options to enhance their sustainability. Through our state rural water associations, NRWA stands ready to help in all areas of water utility governance, management, compliance, operation and finance to support the continued sustainability of the nation’s drinking water and wastewater services to rural and small town America.