It is great to be speaking with you here in Washington DC; being with the “water folk” is like a family reunion! I bring greetings from President Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Rural Development Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager; I want to thank President Anderton, and Executives Rob Johnson and Same Wade for inviting me to speak with you today.
As this is Rob Johnson’s last Rally – I want to thank him for his service and leadership! You have shaped this organization and the rural water industry for the better. And you will be missed!
As I watched the Super Bowl last week, I turned my attention to the commercials. One stood out to me—and maybe to you, too. The commercial with Paul Harvey talking about why God created farmers. As he talked about the hard work, long hours and leadership it takes to be a farmer, it struck me that they could make a similar commercial for rural water and waste operators and managers. So before I begin my formal remarks I want to say – THANK YOU for all that you do on behalf of rural America.
I would also like to acknowledge all of the veterans here today and THANK YOU for the sacrifices you have made on behalf of all of us here today!
Sometimes we need a reminder of what is really important. A signpost that forces us to stop and take note of the road ahead and the impact of the choices we make on the future. Hurricane Sandy has been a good reminder that water is important.
- Water is a symbol of a community’s vitality.
- Modern, reliable water and waste service makes it possible for families to survive and stay healthy, for schools and hospitals to serve and businesses to succeed.
- If water works, everything else is possible.
Rural water operators understand this and take their responsibilities seriously.
- In the midst of disasters like Sandy, they go above and beyond the call of duty.
- When Super Storm Sandy hit Long Beach Township New Jersey in October, the community of 3,000 was forced to deal with an incredible disaster.
- Work to keep service online began long before Sandy ever showed up on any radar, with the hiring of qualified staff, the development of an emergency response plan and other preparatory activities.
When the storm initially knocked out power on the island, pre-existing natural gas generators allowed the plants to stay online. As the storm progressed and the island was evacuated, shutdown procedures for all but two of the plants were implemented.
Sandy caused significant damage.
- Damage to the distribution system.
- Sandy tore apart water mains and shredding fire hydrants.
- One well went underwater and was contaminated.
- Buildings were damaged.
- The island was covered in sand and salt water—in some places up to five feet deep.
- Movement on the island was severely restricted, and many times the water and sewer crews had the only equipment on the island that could move.
- The water was so deep that even bulldozers struggled to make it through.
Michael Clark, Assistant Water Plant Operations Specialist, was among those worked to assess and repair the damaged system.
- Going house-to-house and risking their lives in the process.
- Worked 12 to 20 hours for 35 days straight to bring the system back online.
- Even helped rescue stranded residents and bring them to safety.
The New Jersey Rural Water Association provided generators and circuit riders to assist in the effort. New Jersey Circuit Rider Dave Lester helped work on compliance issues with the system, and get a two-week boil order lifted.
Today, service is substantially restored and long-term recovery for the Township is well underway.
Stories like this remind us how important investment in rural systems is to the communities we serve and to the people who live in them.
- Investment in constructing the physical infrastructure
- Investment in planning and preparatory activities
- Investment in training and technical assistance; and
- Investment in a qualified workforce.
These investments create sustainable systems
- equally capable of serving the daily water and waste needs of rural families and businesses,
- facing disasters like hurricane Sandy, and
- providing economic opportunity for rural areas for years to come.
These investments are not optional.
At Rural Development, we understand this, and are proud to play our part in ensuring that the network of rural water and waste systems is strong and sustainable.
In FY 2012, Rural Development invested
- over $1.4 billion
- in 845 water and wastewater projects in rural areas nationwide
- will benefit nearly 2.5 million rural residents.
We also continued the build-out of our Recovery Act projects.
- Pleased to report that 97% of the projects are to bid point or beyond.
- 362 projects are completed—that’s 208 more than last year at this time!
- The first project completed was in Missouri
- Two states, Nevada and Rhode Island have completed all of their projects.
- Michigan has the highest number of projects completed at 36, followed closely by South Dakota at 32 (88% of their projects).
- Thanks to these and all of the states for moving these much needed project ahead.
- Nearly 400 more are in active construction, many of which will be completed this year
Projects like the Ozark Mountain Regional Water Project.
- Regional system is bringing safe, reliable water to thousands of rural residents across four counties.
- Project is set to be completed this summer, when all 19 small rural water systems it will serve are connected.
Large and small, all of our ARRA projects will provide critical infrastructure and economic opportunity to rural America.
In addition, we invested over $38.5 million in technical assistance and training activities that resulted in:
- Nearly 100,000 technical assistance calls completed by Drinking Water and Wastewater Circuit Riders,
- Thousands of rural board members and operators trained; and
- New tools and guides developed to help rural systems.
We continue our focus on sustainability:
- Hosting workshops for rural systems to help them assess their current status; and
- Developing strategies to increase sustainability.
- Working with our partners to promote sustainability.
Special thanks to Michigan Rural Water Association ED Tim Neumann, and Georgia Rural Water Association ED Jimmy Matthews for hosting two of our sustainability workshops and providing input on our guides and tools.
Our team of talented and dedicated staff, led by our Assistant Administrator, Jacki Ponti-Lazaruk, is working hard to continue our 75-year tradition of serving the needs of Rural America. Our role is no less critical today than it was seven decades ago. A strong rural water network leads to a strong Rural America. A strong rural America leads to a stronger America, where food, energy, goods and services are plentiful. Rural communities continue to seek funding to build, expand and modernize water and waste infrastructure. Our backlog of applications exceeds $3 billion. (Funny that that number never seems to move for very long.)
However, the environment in which we will conduct our work has changed.
- I don’t have to tell you that competition for federal dollars is high, and federal agencies are being asked to do more with less.
- We saw a change in staffing as the result of two buy-out exercises designed to address operational budget cuts.
- To continue to meet the critical infrastructure needs of rural communities RUS must not only adapt to the changing environment, but transform into an agile and more advanced service provider.
- have challenged each of my Assistant Administrators to find ways to streamline our processes and maximize the use of our limited resources, so that we can continue to meet our commitment to serve you.
In the year ahead that will mean:
- training field staff in new and innovative ways,
- working to standardize and automate preliminary engineering reports across all federal and state funding agencies,
- working our federal partners at EPA and other agencies to streamline or standardize the environmental information required for federal and state water funding.
- streamlining our Emergency Water Grants regulations, and
- working with our field offices on ways to more efficiently deliver our programs.
We want to hear from you as we go through our transformation.
- We want—we need—to hear your recommendations.
- Jacki and I want to work better, faster and smarter, and appreciate your expertise as we move toward our goals.
Here are some specific areas where input from partners like you will be invaluable.
How can we:
- better target our funds where they are needed most and can have the greatest impact;
- continue to advance our sustainability initiatives;
- get the word out on why rural water is so important!
- Your very own Sam Wade has been leading the charge on this – – Sam, Thank you! RUS looks forward to continuing our work on this front!
- Tennessee Rural Water Association does a great job as we saw at the NRWA conference this fall. Their pamphlet on the impact of rural water is a great tool that can do much good.
- It would be great to see similar efforts in every state!
At RUS, we will measure our success based on three factors
- Is every rural American connected to clean, safe, affordable drinking water?
- Are the projects we have funded being completed in a timely manner so that rural residents and businesses can benefit from access to modern, reliable infrastructure.
- Ultimately, do we reach those most in need and where the greatest impact will be felt?
- Have our efforts not only increased access to infrastructure, but are they enabling rural communities to act in ways that position them for the future?
- Did we facilitate leveraging of funding, programs and other assistance by rural communities to advance their goals?
- Have our efforts lead to creative solutions for our rural communities? Are rural communities taking advantage of the latest technologies to compete locally and globally? Do they know how Rural Development can help with advanced manufacturing, smart grid, alternative energy, in addition to water conservation, improved water quality and delivery?
- Have our efforts lead to more sustainable rural communities?
We know our efforts help provide clean water to our cities. More than 88 percent of our fresh water first falls on private lands in rural America before entering the water supply. This raises the stakes for the work our rural water systems do, as well as the conservation efforts our farmers and ranchers carry out every day.
As Secretary Vilsack has noted, Rural America is critically important to our nation.
- With 98 percent of Americans living off the farm and more than 80 percent living in metro areas, we need to tell our story proactively and often.
- We can’t afford to allow rural communities to be left out or left behind, particularly here in Washington.
- The work carried out by rural Americans stands as the backbone to the strength of our nation.
All of us depend on rural America for food, water, energy and much more – and too many folks around the country don’t realize or appreciate this.
As many of you know, I was first a water guy. And I am honored to be serving as the RUS Administrator. As Administrator, I will do everything in my power to ensure that our water programs succeed. Not because of the program’s history, but because of its impact on the future. I look forward to working with you and the communities we all serve in the year ahead!