Helping Rural Communities address Drinking Water Needs through Best Practices in Community Development
By Chris Marko, Rural Development Specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Community Development Society (CDS) Board Member
As this country’s infrastructure continues to age, communities face increasing challenges with providing basic services, including drinking water. While the majority of the nation’s population lives in larger communities, there are many more small communities, and drinking water systems. Statistically small communities (less than 5,000 in population) are more likely to face compliance violations, which require system improvements and can be costly. Small communities often have limited revenue base to pay for large projects, limited technical, managerial, and financial capacity to take on projects, and political will at the local level to bear the burden of taking on necessary improvements is becoming more and more of a challenge.
20 years ago grant money was more available. Now much of the available financing for projects is in the form of loans that require taking on debt. To compound issues, many communities have not kept up with costs to cover existing and future costs of operating systems, which can cause “sticker shock” when faced with the need to finance a multi-million dollar drinking water project. In my work I assist communities who face these challenges and would like to share how some best practices in community development help me work with staff, elected officials, and the public.
1. Promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives. The past few months I have been involved with a community facing opposition from community members regarding a proposed drinking water project. The public meeting last month was very contentious and participants asked many questions which the city could not answer at the time. As a next step part of the strategy was to be responsive and address questions specifically, reach out to the community, and conduct additional public meetings. The city held two meetings that included responses to the questions and was facilitated in a way that encouraged participation in a constructive and considerate manner. While there was opposition to the project expressed, the meeting went much better as people were heard and acknowledged.
2. Engage community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action. The city considered a number of alternatives to making drinking water improvements. The city faced a compliance issue regarding water pressure which needed to be addressed to meet State requirements. The master plan identified a number of additional deficiencies in the water system, including distribution lines, fire hydrants, and storage. The city has worked with funding agencies to identify a funding package with the lowest interest loan with some “principal forgiveness” (no interest) funding available. The city presented various funding scenarios, reasons for taking on a project which goes beyond meeting compliance, and considers additional improvements which will be necessary for the future of the community residents and economy. In response to questions about relief for low income residents regarding a rate increase the city responded by working with the local non-profit community action agency to develop a fund for water rate assistance for low income residents which incorporated the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the community development process.
3. Work actively to enhance the leadership capacity of community members, leaders, and groups within the community. By facilitating the most recent public meetings in a manner that encouraged community participants to share their views in a constructive, considerate manner, and emphasizing how the city appreciates input, and will continue to be responsive to questions significantly helped the process. Part of the outreach strategy developed included connecting with local groups and attending meetings to further educate the community about the importance of improving the drinking water system. As a technical assistance provider I reviewed statements prepared by the lead city council person who presented a summary of reasons why the city needed to take on the project. Comments emphasized how city leaders need to be responsive to address the existing compliance issue, and also consider the health and safety of residents by providing adequate fire protection, pressure, and storage for the future. The community has not made significant improvements to the system for over 20 years. By encouraging councilors to conduct outreach within their community, connect with individuals and groups, and continue to be open, responsive, and appreciative of comments and questions, the feedback on the recent two public meetings was much better due to enhanced community leadership.
4. Be open to using the full range of action strategies to work toward the long-term sustainability and well- being of the community. As mentioned by city leaders at meetings, news articles, and radio interviews the city reviewed a number of alternatives to address the compliance issue, and considered additional improvements to address deficiencies. The city decided to take on a larger project, with higher cost utilizing the best available finance terms, than the “minimum fix”. Community members felt there were options to consider regarding financing, including a general obligation bond instead of the low interest loan package. The city responded by reviewing the potential financial impact of a general obligation bond on residents compared to the low interest loan package (which included some principal forgiveness). Based on consultation with bond counsel it was determined the estimated financial impact of the general obligation bond would be higher than the proposed project using loan financing. Some community members still felt the city should only address the minimum fix and place the burden of financing the project on the few residents where water pressure was lowest. The city did not feel this was an equitable for the community and decided on a project in terms of long term community benefit.
While controversy about the proposed water project still exists, more people have expressed support for the proposed project at recent public meetings, and expressed appreciation for the time and effort the city council, staff, and resource providers have taken to respond to questions and remain proactive about addressing problems which have not been dealt with for many years. The city has utilized principals of good practice in community development to engage the community, respond to questions and issues raised, and address what it feels is in the best interest of the community as a whole. This is one of many examples of how communities are trying to deal with the challenge of providing basic services, including something essential to life and community sustainability—drinking water.
Edited by Cindy Banyai
Picture shared from here