It’s probably safe to say that, for many, the words “rural water resource management” conjure up images of agricultural irrigation. But the truth while agriculture laps up the lion’s share of resources—there’s upwards of 30,000 rural water utilities spread out throughout the country, in unincorporated hamlets and across county lines (www.nrwa.org). And all of those customers expect access to clean, (relatively) inexpensive drinking water. Unfortunately, many rural communities struggle with water quality, access, and delivery
But providing for those customers can be a challenge. The truth is that it’s becoming harder and harder for small water purveyors to provide safe, clean water at affordable rates. Part of the problem is treatment—water treatment in a rural environment can be tricky and expensive. According to the California Rural Legal Assistance organization, “residents of low-income, unincorporated communities spend up to 10% of their income on water.”
And while arsenic is the most noteworthy pathogen, the truth is that bacterial loads and chemical contamination must all be addressed and mitigated. Many states require that water utilities meet local and federal guidelines, but monitoring and enforcement of those requirements often falls short. Many water quality regulations lack the teeth to make good on the possible penalties and fines put in place to protect local water supplies.
“The gap between rights on the books and rights on the ground is particularly stark in the (Central) Valley,” Camille Pannu (Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment) recently wrote in the California Law Review.
Adding complexity to the issue is the every present funding demon—construction or rehabilitation of conveyance infrastructure is pricey, and most grants and bonds can only get the utility about halfway there. As Phoebe Seaton of the California Rural Legal Assistance organization points out, a common obstacle for these projects is not political will, but lack of funding (http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/state&id=8661151). One option being explored by rural water purveyors is the consolidation of water districts to form a larger water system that can cut costs and increase political influence.
“We are not going to be able to solve these issues without consolidation because it’s too expensive,” explains Allen Ishida, a county supervisor helping Tulare County with its consolidation efforts.
So what do you think? Can centralized control improve rural water quality? Can consolidation help rural water utilities increase their influence and cut their collection and treatment costs? Are rural communities struggling with different water resource management challenges, or is it just that the scale of their struggle is different than their urban counterparts?