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WaterOperator.org Blog

Preparing for Funding Opportunities

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Proposed infrastructure funding has been on everyone's radar, despite uncertainty about what fine print will ultimately be passed by Congress. The new plan could be the largest investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in American history and bipartisan support for these efforts means that new funding opportunities for a range of stakeholders are likely.

This makes it all the more important to know how to apply for and manage funding when it becomes available, as well as understand your needs and eligibility. Navigating the world of funding can feel intimidating, but there are many resources available to help aid the process. Preparing ahead of time is the best way to make sure your organization is ready to respond to funding opportunities. 

This preparation begins with a capacity development approach. Capacity development is a process that water systems can use to acquire and maintain adequate technical, managerial, and financial capacity. Programs have been established in every state to help public water systems continue to strengthen their capacity and you've likely crossed paths with training, resources, or technical assistance provided through these programs.

We're highlighting a selection of our favorite capacity development resources that can help systems (and those who serve them) undertake readiness efforts for potential infrastructure investment.

Managerial Capacity 

Managerial capacity for short and long term planning includes:

  • Ownership accountability 
  • Staffing and organization 
  • Effective external linkages 

Resources:
Water System Owner Roles and Responsibilities: A Best Practices Guide
This guide can help owners and operators of public water systems serving less than 10,000 people better understand their responsibilities. 

Strategic Planning: A Handbook for Small Water Systems
This handbook was designed to help operators serving less than 3,000 people develop a strategic management plan. 

Manual for Assessing Public Water Supply System Capability
This manual goes through each of the components of capacity development, technical capacity, managerial capacity, and financial capacity. 

Financial Capacity 

Financial capacity for short and long term planning includes:

  • Revenue sufficiency 
  • Creditworthiness 
  • Fiscal management and controls  

Resources:
Water Finance Clearinghouse
This portal was created by the U.S. EPA to help water operators locate helpful financial resources. 

Grant (Loan) Writing 101 - Right Grant, Right Time, Right Project
This 31-slide presentation explains the numerous steps that are included in writing a grant from start to finish. 

Introduction to Grant Writing
This 25-slide presentation addresses the basics of grant writing in the state of Utah. 

A Financially Healthy Water System Now and Into the Future
This presentation introduces questions that should be considered regarding the financial health of your system and how to understand your system's present and future needs.

U.S. EPA Grants Management Training for Applicants and Recipients
This online training course designed by the U.S. EPA  includes six modules that explain the grant life cycle process. 

Asset Management 

Asset management is the practice of making the most of capital assets, while also delivering the best customer service. It is essential to establishing sustainable infrastructure. Building an asset management team can lead to increased knowledge management, financial efficiency, and work efficiency. 

Resources: 
Building an Asset Management Team
This factsheet outlines the steps to take to build a functioning asset management team. 

Asset Management: A Handbook
This handbook, designed specifically for small water systems, reviews the basic concepts of asset management and lists tools to help develop a concrete plan. 

Reference Guide for Asset Management Tools
This reference guide is a collection of asset management plan components and implementation tools that drinking water and wastewater systems can use. 
 

You can find thousands of additional helpful resources in our database.

Featured Video: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative

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These past few weeks, our featured videos have highlighted the infrastructure needs and challenges of water utilities from several different angles: kids' PSAs, rural utilities' infrastructure improvement projects, and operational know-how for utility administrators. But maybe your community is past all that. Your community  knows what your needs are. You've studied what other utilities in similar situations have done. Your utility's leaders all have a good grasp of what the problem is and how to fix it. What comes next?

There are a couple of different answers to that question, depending on your specific circumstances and the place where you live. You might need to contact a technical assistance provider or an engineer. You might need to apply for a grant. Depending on where you live, you may also benefit from joining a regional partnership. In Alaska, some rural communities have joined the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative (ARUC), which helps streamline and standardize billing and assists with infrastructure improvements. This week's video features brief interviews with communities that have benefited from this partnership. (Please note that the first 8 seconds of this video are a black screen. The video will begin after this brief pause.)

 

For more on regional partnerships, see our featured video on a regional partnership in the Southwest.

Featured Video: Liquid Assets

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Even if you're not into New Years' resolutions, the turn of the year can be a great time to reflect on where you've been and where you're going. Though I don't really make New Years' resolutions, I do like to take this time to think about my goals and strategies for achieving them. Then instead of testing my willpower against a resolution, I can focus on taking a small step toward a goal or even just thanking the people who have helped me along the way. And while this is a great time for personal reflection, organizations can benefit from asking these questions as well.

A lot of questions facing water utilities are raised in this week's video. It covers a surprising number of topics in just 27 minutes, including crumbling underground infrastructure, the political factors that keep water rates too low to cover needed repairs, and the experiences of small, rural Minnesota communities grappling with infrastructure and sourcewater protection issues. Each issue is presented briefly but thoughtfully, with plenty of input from the local politicians and city officials who had to deal with these problems directly. Though the video was originally created for a PBS station in Minnesota, both drinking water and wastewater utilities from around the country will find a lot to agree with and consider for their own utilities.



For more on rate-setting for small utilities, check out the RCAP handbook Formulate Great Rates and the EFCN rate dashboards.

Featured Video: Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

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As winter gets underway, many of communities are thinking about energy costs and energy savings. Utilities will recognize these concerns as well. Did you know 30-40% of a municipality's energy budget is spent on the treatment of drinking water and wastewater? Chances are someone at your utility has been made aware. With energy costs rising everywhere, it doesn't hurt to save money where you can and perform an energy audit at your utility.

This 7-and-a-half minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) doesn't go into the details of a full energy audit. But it does outline several areas where energy audits often find opportunities for savings. It can be a great way to introduce water boards, mayors, and other decision-makers to the benefits of energy audits. And even without being a full audit, it might give you some good ideas for your utility. Though the video highlights wastewater treatment facilities, most of the tips could be easily applied to drinking water utilities as well.

Energy Efficiency at Wastewater Treatment Facilities from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you're interested in getting an energy audit for your utility, RCAP staff are able to carry out energy audits for both water and wastewater utilities. To find the RCAP partner that serves your region, check their website.

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates

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If you're a utility manager or a member of a water utility board, there's a good chance you've had to deal with utility rates at some point. If not, there's an even better chance that a rate-setting conversation is in your future. As the nation's infrastructure ages, many communities are coming to terms with the fact that their utility rates have been too low to allow for replacement costs. Whether you've been forced into an expensive repair by a catastrophic failure or simply know a major piece of your infrastructure is living on borrowed time, you may have no choice but to consider a rate hike and other fundraising measures. But even if your position is not that dire, utility rates have to respond to many complex factors including inflation, fluctuations in number of customers, and changing water treatment standards.

If the whole thing sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has produced several resources to guide utilities through this process. Their handbook Formulate Great Rates provides guidance for small communities that need to conduct water system rate studies. They also recorded a 2-part companion webinar for the handbook, the first video of which is linked below. The webinars are presented by RCAP experts with experience in rate-setting and help explain some of the more challenging sections of the handbook. This first webinar is about half an hour long.


Formulate Great Rates: A webcast on setting rates in small-community utilities (Part 1) from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you need more help understanding the handbook, or need a hand with rate-setting in general, RCAP's regional partners offer technical assistance for rural communities. You might also want to check out the Environmental Finance Center's rate dashboards.

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

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Paying for maintenance and upgrades to your utility is no small task, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cost of replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities could be almost $190 billion in the coming decades. It’s unlikely a single source can meet your costs, and smart financing will instead require a mix of external funding, capital planning and rate setting to meet your goal.

External funds

The U.S. EPA provides a thorough starting point for finding external funding sources. Federal funding for water infrastructure includes:

There is also funding available at various agencies designated specifically for water and wastewater utilities dealing with declared federal disasters, or those seeking funds for proactive planning and design.

Funding options at the state level vary, but the Environmental Finance Center Network maintains a list of funding sources by state. The lists will include the last date of update, basic information on how to apply, and staff contact information to learn more.

Finally, there may be local or private foundation grants available, depending on your situation.

Capital planning

As the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states, “Long-term planning is required to schedule major infrastructure improvements and spread the capital costs over many years in order to avoid having to raise rates significantly in any one year to pay for a capital project that was unplanned.”

To that end, the center has developed resources and compiled best practice guides to help small utilities develop Capital Investment Plans and/or Asset Management Plans. These include the “Plan to Pay” tool, which uses Excel to project your fund balance (revenues, expenses and reserves), and necessary rate increases for the next 20 years.

Rate setting

Once you know your options for external funding and projected balance for infrastructure improvements, you’ll know whether and when a rate change is needed. View our past blogs on Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process and Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need.

As always, you can find additional resources in the WaterOperator.org document library, including examples specific to your state by selecting “Financial management” under Category and your location under State.

Featured Video: Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority

There are a lot of rewards to living in a rural community: seeing just enough of your neighbors, lots of satisfying work, and (depending on where you live) getting to see the beauty of nature in the way a city dweller never can. Unfortunately for rural water utility operators, some of these benefits don't completely translate to their jobs. If you're the only operator---the only employee---at a rural utility, sometimes independence and hard work end up meaning the operation of the utility is all up to you all the time. Never being able to take a day off or have a vacation can be tiring enough. But you add in some of the weather Mother Nature can produce while she's busy being scenic, and sometimes you end up working nights, weekends, and 24-hour days, trying to keep your friends and neighbors supplied with clean, safe drinking water.

If this sounds familiar, a regional partnership might offer you a little breathing space. Regional partnerships can give you the opportunity to get a nearby operator to cover your utility while you take a vacation or go to town for a doctor's visit. Pooling your resources with other rural utilities can also help you qualify for employer insurance, access tools and resources from neighboring communities, and meet other knowledgeable operators. This 7-minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation shows how a regional partnership helped unincorporated communities known as colonias help each other:

Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority from RCAC on Vimeo.

To see more resources for water utilities from RCAC, check out their Guidebooks.

Featured Video: Communicating Science

As a water utility professional, you probably spend at least some time talking to people about your job. Whether you're explaining operations to a utility board, breaking down a bill for a customer, or just chatting at a barbeque, eventually, someone is going to want to know how and why you do what you do. For some of you, this might be an easy task--you're an outgoing educator with a passion for your job. For others though, getting asked questions on the spot makes your mind go blank and your palms go sweaty. Still others may be happy to talk, but have a hard time getting people interested in what you have to say. Trying to help people understand a topic as complex as water and wastewater treatment can be a challenge, particularly when you're immersed in the topic yourselves. Add in the financial challenges some small systems face, and opening up meaningful communication with your community can feel even more daunting.


Scientists face similar challenges. Like water operators, scientists have a lot of knowledge about complex fields with specialized jargon. The work they do may not be obvious to people outside the profession, just like utility operations can feel hidden in plain sight. One resource that helps scientists learn how to communicate with the press and other non-scientists is the Alda-Kavli Center for Science Communication. In this video, co-founder Alan Alda talks about his inspiration for starting the Center and some of the basic communication principles he keeps in mind:



To read about water utility outreach programs, visit our document database and type "public relations" (without the quote marks) into the Keyword search field, then click "Retrieve Documents." Being open with your community about the challenges and successes at their utility can help you gain public support, even when you need to undertake big projects like rate hikes or infrastructure overhauls. Even if you don't have big projects looming on the horizon, taking the extra time to engage with your community can make your job more rewarding, and builds goodwill for when you do need a helping hand. If nothing else, taking some time to think about these issues ahead of time will give you some better conversation topics at your next barbecue.

Featured Video: The EFC Water and Wastewater Rate Dashboards

The new year may be a time for considering budgets as well as operational challenges. But for small water utilities in particular, setting rates and managing budgets involves a complex set of social and financial issues that can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are resources out there that can help. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of free, interactive Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards. According to the project website, these dashboards are "designed to assist utility managers and local officials to compare and analyze water and wastewater rates against multiple characteristics, including utility finances, system characteristics, customer base socioeconomic conditions, geography, and history." To learn more about how the dashboard works, you can watch their nine-part video series, beginning with the video below:

Dashboards are currently available for twelve states. (For the most up-to-date versions of these dashboards, and to check if new states have been added, use the map at the project page.)

Even if your state is not on the list of current dashboards, it may still be interesting to check out what communities similar to yours are doing around the country. If you'd like more help working on rates and budgeting at your utility, the Rural Community Assistance Program provides technical assistance to small, rural utilities in need of both operational and administrative support. They also have a number of helpful guides aimed at supporting board members of small utilities, including this one dedicated specifically to rate-setting.

Utility finances can be difficult and complicated, but they don't have to be impossible. Find out which assistance providers near you can help you determine what's most realistic and sustainable for your utility.

So You've Got a Website...Now What?

In an earlier post, we talked a little about the value of having a website—or webpage on a city site—to connect with rate payers. Getting the site up is one step, albeit a huge one. Now you face the challenge of driving traffic to the site or page. After all, the most informative site might as well not exist if no one knows it’s there.

Marketing a website may sound like a full time job, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a handful of things you can do to raise awareness and promote use without adding much to your already lengthy “to do” lists.

  • Add a teaser to your email signature. Something as simple as “Visit WaterOperator.org for more information” with a hyperlink is enough. Emails get forwarded, copied, and otherwise shared. You never know who may be reading and clicking.   
  • Create a bill insert informing rate payers about the site. If resources allow it, consider including refrigerator magnets or something similar with the url and your logo to serve as a more lasting reminder.
  • Share website information on your utility’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts. If you’re not active on social media—or even if you are—reach out to whoever runs the accounts for your city or town to let them know the site is available as a resource. Whatever you do, don’t forget to include the link.
  • Participate in Facebook groups and Google Plus communities. This is a particularly good strategy if your own social media accounts don’t have a lot of followers. Perhaps your community has a Facebook community for parents, university students, seniors, gardeners, or more. Ask to join these groups and start directing people to relevant information on road closures, water conservation, or whatever else the group may find useful.
  • Offer to write a guest post for a city or community blog. By including your website in the bio at the end of your post, you can draw in visitors from sources that may get more hits than your website.
  • Reach out to your local print and tv media and offer to talk about some of the resources available on the site. 
  • Start an email list. Email marketing is still one of the strongest ways to engage with the public. Chances are, you found this very blog post through one of our email newsletters. Once you have it, use your list to highlight whitepapers, videos, conservation tips, and utility news recipients can find on your site.

As you start marketing your site, be sure to share your successes, mishaps, and everything in between on Small Communities #TalkAboutWater. Your experiences could help another small system reach their rate payers more effectively and efficiently.