Looking to the Future of Water and Wastewater

By Kendra Wilkerson, Infrastructure Sustainability Manager, SC Rural Infrastructure Authority

The United States has constructed an estimated 2.2 million miles of pipe to bring clean drinking water to our homes and businesses — a truly impressive feat of collective action. At the same time, the work of maintaining and expanding that network, and the accompanying wastewater infrastructure it needs, requires a staggering amount of money. The needs are not only financial. Retiring personnel can leave systems scrambling to maintain the technical and managerial capacity they need to keep complex infrastructure in working order. 

The SC Rural Infrastructure Authority is proud to support South Carolina’s water and wastewater systems by awarding grants and partnering with the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control to administer low-cost loans through the State Revolving Fund. Even so, these programs can only supplement local efforts to fund utility services through sustainable business models.

More than 90% of the drinking water systems in the U.S. have no more than 10,000 customers. With a relatively small revenue base, these systems tend to have fewer resources available to help them plan for the future. They face more limited options to overcome challenges such as declining population, aging infrastructure and unanticipated emergencies. When these utilities were surveyed by the American Waterworks Association in 2019, less than a quarter of respondents reported being fully able to cover costs.

While anecdotal evidence indicates that South Carolina’s ecosystem of water and wastewater providers broadly mirrors national trends, understanding the unique context in which the state’s systems operate is key to developing the effective, targeted strategies that can address local needs. With the help of a grant from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, RIA is currently undertaking a statewide study to examine these issues. The study is assessing the obstacles South Carolina communities encounter when trying to maintain viable water and sewer systems. Armed with the survey’s data, the agency will identify practical ways for systems, funders and other stakeholders to address common challenges and strengthen this critical infrastructure. An expert advisory committee, whose members represent a cross section of the stakeholders involved in the water infrastructure sector in South Carolina, is guiding the study. 

Some communities have already taken important steps toward greater long-term sustainability, showing the variety of ways a system can work toward this goal. Steps such as developing capital improvement plans, rethinking rate structures, seeking staff training and accurately mapping assets can all lead to better outcomes. The Town of Calhoun Falls, for example, recently worked with an engineer to map needed water and sewer improvements and to develop preliminary cost estimates. 

In many cases, system owners turn to their neighbors for informal operational support — interconnections to ensure consistent service or contractual arrangements for shared services. The City of Union provides operational support to the Towns of Lockhart and Carlisle, and the City of Camden does the same for the Town of Bethune. The City of Walhalla recently constructed an interconnection between its water system and the City of Westminster’s system to ensure reliable service to an industrial park. Sometimes communities agree that customers are best served by entirely transferring one utility to another, as when the City of Florence assumed responsibility for the Town of Timmonsville’s system. In the case of the Lowcountry Regional Water System, several towns, along with Hampton County, pooled their resources to create and jointly govern a new, more viable system. 

Recognizing that partnerships play a critical role in positioning utilities for long-term success, RIA will host a full-day event this fall to bring stakeholders together. Participants will discuss challenges, share successes and help shape the strategy for strengthening these systems statewide. Look for more information about this event as it becomes available on the RIA website

Supporting community sustainability is not a new idea for infrastructure funders such as RIA. It is a consideration in the review of applications for grants and loans. For cities and towns that need to make water and sewer improvements to ensure the reliability of services for their customers, RIA has financial assistance available. To learn more, contact RIA at 803.737.0390 or through its website; or DHEC at 803.898.3993 or through the State Revolving Fund program webpage.