The Loss of Community Water Supply: Good or Bad?

By Sam Wade, NRWA CEO

An incremental decrease of community water supply systems supports the effectiveness of local-decision making as environmental and financial landscapes change over the course of time.

According to the US EPA Echo database, there has been a reduction of 336 systems in the last year from the 50,067 in 2018 to the latest inventory number of 49,731.  This is a continued trend from the 2000 inventory number of 54,064 community water supplies.  This reduction can be attributed to two primary reasons: urbanization and consolidations within the industry.

Urbanization

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a place is “urban” if it’s a big, modest or even small collection of people living near each other. This definition includes Houston, with its 4.9 million people, and Bellevue, Iowa, with its 2,543.  The U.S. Census Bureau statistic shows the degree of urbanization in the United States from 2000 to 2050. In 2015, about 82.7 percent of the total population in the United States lived in urban areas. Projections estimate that the corresponding figure in 2050 will be 87.4 percent.

It can be summarized that expansion of population centers into what used to be considered rural areas fuels local- decision making for consolidation of small systems such as mobile home parks and individual development owned systems; thus, reducing the number of community water supplies in the inventory.

District Consolidation

Consolidation of smaller systems is occurring continuously.  Regardless of the consolidator’s name, whether it is water district, regional water system, special utility district, co-op or authority, these types of systems often encompass large service areas with multiple county service areas.    As these systems have grown and expanded, smaller systems within the service areas often connect onto the district or larger system.  These interconnections take on various types of partnership from fully collapsing the smaller system into the district to a number of other options. These entities tend to consolidate to leverage available resources and expertise to benefit both parties and continue a high quality of service to the users.  In a recent blind survey of utilities with 3,073 respondents, 67% of the non-municipal respondents such as the districts and 47% of the municipal respondents indicated they either receive or provide services to other entities.

The loss of community water supplies: good or bad?

The largest reduction in community water supply systems is in the smaller population served category, serving 500 or less.   The reality is that smaller systems face the biggest challenges due to lower economies of scale to meet the same standards as large metropolitan systems.  Congress recognized this in establishing technical assistance programs for rural and small communities within the Safe Drinking Water Act and providing assistance through the USDA Rural Development Water and Waste Programs.  This assistance provides a pool of expertise these smaller systems cannot afford individually.

Population Served CWS
2000
CWS
2016
CWS
2018
CWS 2019 +/- in last year
500 or less 31,688 27,710 27,339 27,065 -274
501-3,300 14,149 13,506 13,408    13,339 -69
3,301-10,000 4,458 4,973 4,992 4,992 -0-
10,000 + 3,769 4,307 4,328 4,335 +7
           
Total 54,064 50,496 50,067 49,731 -336

The reduction in the inventory is being accomplished through local-decision making without legislation or regulatory interference.  Local governing officials and their families drink the water that is produced and make these decisions in the best interest of the customers and citizens they serve.