WASHINGTON, D.C. – A packed crowd greeted Congressman Tom Cole and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack with standing ovations during the opening of the National Rural Water Association’s annual Rural Water Rally today in Washington D.C.
Cole, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, praised the quality of Rural Water programs and the “bang for the buck” they provide. He warned, however, that growing federal deficits were forcing Congress to make difficult spending choices.
“The programs that you’re interested in, again, these are high value for low cost,” he said. “It shouldn’t be something that we have to struggle for, but we do because entitlement programs keep squeezing out discretionary spending.”
Congressman Cole insisted that Congress and the next President would have to make hard choices about issues like Social Security, the deficit and the tax code. He added that they would have to make those choices without limiting critical programs, like those that support clean drinking water.
“The people in Flint, Mich. can tell you that if someone isn’t doing this job, the consequences of it are terrible,” Cole said.
Secretary Vilsack also spoke about budget difficulties, though his remarks explained how funding choices, even within the same department, could impact other programs.
“One of the challenges is budget,” Vilsack said. “You may not think that your situation is related to the Forest Service budget, but it is. When we increase spending on fire suppression, it means we have to reduce resources and investment in another part of our budget.”
The secretary explained that the challenge was not just encouraging Congress to fully fund the water programs, but to also fix the fire budget. In response to the demands of the tightening budget, USDA started an effort to recruit investment banks and pension funds to invest in rural water projects.
Vilsack’s speech did not focus on the challenges Rural Water faced, but explained why it was important to preserve and promote rural America. He explained that unemployment is slightly higher in rural areas and that poverty is more persistent – 85% of persistent poverty counties are rural counties.
“Rural America is not just the place where we get our food, not just the place almost all the feedstock for the energy we consume comes from, it’s also the place where a disproportionate number of our men and women serving the military come from,” Vilsack said.
More that 44 percent of military recruits come from rural communities. Vilsack believes that rural young people are not enlisting only to find economic opportunity, but because of a value system in rural America.
“People who work the land understand that you have to give something back,” he explained. “It’s a value worth keeping.”
NRWA President Charles Hilton opened the Rally by recounting how the community of Breezy Hill South Carolina started a water utility in 1968 with a $500,000 loan. At first, that system served 297 taps, but it has grown to service 5,500 customers and is valued at over $10 million. That water system, in Hilton’s hometown, has also brought in over a billion dollars in economic development.
Hilton reminded the gathered utility professionals that their voice was what had made Rural Water so successful.
“National Rural Water has no power or credibility on its own,” he explained. “It is through the grass roots efforts of our members that we have been successful.”
Rally Photo Gallery