Special Report: Circuit Riders – The Origin and Mission

Initially, Circuit Riders were clergy assigned to travel around specific geographic territories and deliver a sermon or religious address to settlers and organize congregations in the earliest years of the United States.

The National Rural Water Association (NRWA) pioneered the concept of a “Circuit Rider” for the water industry in 1980 in cooperation with the Farmers Home Administration, now Rural Development, Rural Utilities Service. The program was the result of congressional actions and appropriations advocated by NRWA to directly assist rural and small communities. NRWA was formed in 1976 as a utility membership association representing the water and wastewater industry in small and rural communities. The original goals and mission of funding and providing resources to assist rural and small utilities continue today. These small and rural utilities include most of the community water supplies in the nation. In fact, 91% of the 49,731 community water supplies serve less than 10,000 population, 26% serve 3,300 or less and 54% serve 500 or less.

The Circuit Rider Program was institutionalized into law on September 24, 1980 with the passage of the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980. The authorization of the Circuit Rider Program was created by Congress with this clear mission stating, “through the Farmers Home Administration for planning and technical assistance and for the establishment of a circuit-rider program to facilitate the delivery of Federal programs to rural areas. It also provides for dissemination of more information to the rural public about the availability of these programs. This bill will improve the Federal Government’s capacity to meet the needs of our small towns and country areas. It will move us from a protracted period of analysis to a program of active involvement in rural and small-community development….”

Presidential Remarks on the passage of the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980:

“Senator Leahy and Congressman Wes Watkins, Congressman Nolan and others who are assembled here, ladies and gentlemen who are interested in the future of rural America—future of America… This legislation will enable the Farmers Home Administration to assist small communities in establishing circuit-rider programs to provide assistance in economic and community development. I’m today directing the Farmers Home Administration to act promptly to make funding immediately available for these circuit riders, who will go into a community, assess what can be done, that the initiative be from the local people, but provide counsel and assistance as necessary.”

Since 1980, this bi-partisan program has been the mainstay of viability for the nation’s rural and small community water and wastewater utilities. The value cannot be understated and is documented by the record of small utilities in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, economic development in rural areas, and a delinquency rate on repayment of government debt to the Rural Utilities Service, which is consistently less than one-half of one percent.

The NRWA Circuit Rider Team is made up of 132 full-time professional men and women located throughout every state and territory. They provide a pool of expanded skills, knowledge and expertise that is usually unavailable to many small and rural communities. These technicians are uniquely qualified with a skillset that cannot be duplicated. Circuit Riders are practitioners who have actual hands-on experience managing and operating systems, a bank of knowledge gathered from working with systems across their respective states, possess a variety of license and are Utility Management Certified. Since 1980, they have developed operational knowledge and built trusting relationships with staff, governing officials and local leaders. These relationships allow Circuit Riders the ability to effectively communicate and improve all facets of their utility, governance, management operations, finances and sustainable actions for the future. In addition, this relationship allows for critical issues and actions to bypass local politics and receive unbiased information and advice from a trusted source.

Annually, Circuit Riders provide more than 50,000 types of technical assistance and support activities to the nation’s 45,255 community water supplies that serve 10,000 or less in population. The value of this critical expertise is documented in government reports and more importantly, from the systems and communities they served. Over the course of a year, there are continuous unsolicited appreciation letters received from utilities and local leaders such as:

“During a catastrophic occurrence such as this was, [Circuit Rider’s] experience and knowledge of how to handle everything was so appreciated. We think we would have been lost without their direction and guidance.” – PWSD #2, Jefferson Missouri

“As a small system on a tight budget we do not always have the funding to hire specialized contractors…. The Rural Water Association [Circuit Riders] provide valuable technical assistance to our system operations that would otherwise be unaffordable.” – Public Works Director – Brewster, Washington

“To say that we were in dire straits is an understatement. A value cannot be placed on your Circuit Rider’s and training personnel’s assistance to all 82 counties in Mississippi.” – Poplar Spring Water District, Mendenhall Mississippi

Please visit www.nrwa.org or a State Rural Water Association website for more information on Circuit Riders.