By Laura Landes and Sarah Buck—Rural Community Assistance Partnership

June 22, 2021

Navigating the challenges of our time requires a shift from competition to collaboration, and policymaking at all levels must support that. This has never been more true for the small, rural, and tribal communities across the country we work with at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). As a national nonprofit network, RCAP works to improve the quality of life in rural America starting at the tap. Through RCAP’s regional partners, more than 300 technical assistance providers (TAPs) support communities in building their own capacity through technical assistance and training focused on access to safe drinking water, sanitary wastewater, solid waste, and economic development. RCAP also works as a convener and unbiased third-party facilitator to help communities navigate the often daunting process of regionalization.
Our work has taught us that regionalization—our name for regional collaboration—is a key tool to support communities in becoming more resilient and sustainable, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis. Regionalization activities can be as simple and informal as a mutual aid agreement in an emergency, to more formal and involved partnerships such as the formation of a joint powers authority to develop a new water source.
To support communities, regional leaders, and policymakers in better understanding and embracing regionalization policies and strategies, we undertook comprehensive research efforts to explore best practices and lessons learned from the small community experience (see Resiliency through Water and Wastewater System Partnerships: 10 Lessons from Community Leaders). Also, and most recently, we researched the types of policies that support local, state, and federal regionalization efforts. Regionalization: RCAP’s Recommendations for Water and Wastewater Policy, our second research report, which was released in May 2021, compiles 22 recommendations for different levels of government that would encourage and facilitate more water and wastewater regionalization, especially for small, rural, and tribal systems.

What We Learned About Policymaking that Supports Regionalization 

There were two critical takeaways embedded in many of our recommendations that would support successful regionalization, particularly in small, rural, and tribal communities:
First: The Need for Flexibility
Policy at all levels of government should allow for as many ways of implementing, encouraging, and incentivizing regionalization as possible. This should be paired with capacity building opportunities for communities to understand and access those options. Each community can then find the right solution that fits their unique needs.
As an example of the power of flexibility and coordination, the Oregon primacy agency in charge of overseeing drinking water systems referred a rural community to RCAP for help in order to return to compliance. The TAP working with the community quickly realized there was potential as well as desire for an interconnection with a neighboring community with excess capacity. A regionalization feasibility study was necessary to move the project forward. The local economic development agency provided a grant to perform the feasibility study, and the state Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) subsequently provided a loan with 65% principal forgiveness. Close collaboration between the primacy agency, the local economic development agency, the involved communities, and RCAP, which was funded by the federal government to provide technical assistance, allowed this mutually beneficial partnership to come to fruition.
Second: The Need for More Funding for Regionalization Efforts 
This is true across the spectrum of informal-formal regionalization and all levels of government.
A small community in Texas experienced several years without being able to drink their tap water due to radionuclides contamination. A nearby community was willing to build an interconnection and provide water to them, but in order to make that feasible, meters had to be installed on each home and some problems had to be fixed within the existing distribution system. The cost of these upgrades was beyond their reach, so RCAP helped them apply for funding. The state DWSRF program both assigns priority points for regionalization projects and allows for 100% principal forgiveness for very small systems. This, combined with other state funding sources, made it possible for the community to receive safe water from their neighbor and be able to trust their tap water again.
Smart regionalization policies and investment at every level of government can contribute to the creation of accessible and sustainable solutions for small, rural, and tribal water and wastewater systems across the country. Effective policy can open doors to conversations that drive collaboration and lead to positive outcomes that help address the challenges communities across the country are and will continue to face in the weeks and months ahead.