According to the US EPA, there are 50,067 community water supply systems (CWS) in the nation. Over half or 55% of these systems serve populations of 500 or less. Sustainability is a concern of regulators, legislators and interested parties and it continues to be a leading policy issue on the forefront of local governing boards, councils and the citizens they serve. However, there is no direct evidence from EPA or other reputable sources that provides a direct correlation between size of the system and sustainability.
Sustainability must first be assessed through a list of system-specific criteria such as complexity of treatment, quality of its source water, infrastructure conditions and the local economic environment. Many small systems have a high-quality source water that requires minimal equipment and treatment. These systems are small and, without question, can be labeled sustainable depending on the infrastructure and economic conditions of their customers.
The majority of small CWSs are governed by individuals that are duly elected by the residents of the municipality or customers of the district. The officials, managers and operations specialists and their families drink the water that is produced. These individuals take their duties and service to their communities extremely serious. They make sustainability decisions every day in operations, management and governance including consolidations. EPA inventory data documents these local decisions with a reduction of 3,997 systems the last 18 years.
This reduction supports a previous NRWA Sustainability Institute survey which documented that 67% of non-municipal entities, such as districts and co-ops, either receive or provide services to other entities. Likewise, 47% of municipals and 25% of privately-owned entities responding provide or receive services from other entities.
Recognizing that the fabric of our nation is comprised of small communities and understanding their value to our economy and quality of life will lead to a different view in addressing rural issues. The recognition of small systems and their value will lead to finding ways to mend that fabric as opposed to eliminating or tearing it apart.