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From David LaFrance, CEO, AWWA: Over the past year, The Last Drop has focused on AWWA's Water 2050 initiative. A critical part is hearing from water's current young professionals (YPs), as 2050 is their future.
This column is the second of five Last Drop Takeovers by AWWA's YPs. In this “Takeover,” Chelsea Boozer and Elizabeth Heiles discuss a project they are co-leading to develop a sustainability matrix for drinking water utilities in Arkansas. In many ways, this project is a model for the future.
Chelsea is government affairs manager at Central Arkansas Water. She manages regionalism and governmental stakeholder engagement, including facilitating collaboration between multiple stakeholders around economically sustainable pathways to providing drinking water. Elizabeth is a senior associate at Hawkins-Weir Engineers Inc., with experience in water distribution and collection system design as well as modeling and planning. She consults with clients on regulatory compliance.
Last year, a small water utility with 447 connections, an hour south of Little Rock, Ark., reached out for help. Their long-time operator had passed away a few years earlier and his wife, who was in her 80s, was running the office with the help of the board chair, who volunteered without pay. They were having issues with staffing, billing, and operations. While they were passionate about helping their community, they were in over their heads and weren’t sure how much longer they could keep the system running.
The two of us were already leading a state-initiated project, developing a sustainability matrix to identify at-risk public water systems. Interestingly, this small utility, which desperately needed and wanted the help, was not on any at-risk or noncompliance list from state regulatory agencies. Nothing indicated it was a system in trouble. Both of our employers worked as a team to facilitate the political and financial challenges of negotiating a consolidation agreement between the small system and its closest neighbor by securing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant funding through the state.
This is the kind of collaboration we hope is more common 30 years from now. In 2050, we hope the protection of public health through the delivery of safe, reliable, affordable drinking water is not affected by political lines, city limits, or special interests. AWWA's Water 2050 Governance Think Tank foresees regional collaboration on a watershed scale. Utilities, elected officials, regulators, and other stakeholders must work toward a shared mission. That includes municipal utilities helping rural utilities outside their city limits. It means state regulators facilitating meetings between partners that together could benefit a community in need of better service.
Arkansas Natural Resources Division (NRD), which administers state revolving loan funds, began focusing on this when its leadership saw a trend in the funding applications that it received. Continuously approving emergency grants for systems that, every 30 years, needed a major repair due to decades of insufficient maintenance and management is not sustainable.
NRD recognized that the influx of federal funding with ARPA and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided an opportunity to encourage sustainable collaboration and regionalization, whether that is through physical consolidation of infrastructure or management agreements, or through connecting the leaders of nearby systems to encourage them to communicate on long-term planning.
NRD also commissioned the evaluation of public water systems across the state that has led to our project. We hope the sustainability matrix allows for more informed funding of water utility projects and that our final report is able to identify areas where increased collaboration and partnership can benefit ratepayers and communities before systems are on the brink of failure.
Public water system sustainability is becoming harder to achieve. We hope that by the time the two of us are looking to retire from the water industry in 2050, we will be leaving a field that has joined together in the best interests of people and has pushed aside special and political interests to ensure everyone, everywhere, has access to the world's most vital resource.