Rural Water Resources

Oct. 11, 2010
Technical assistance providers help small communities fill in the gaps

About the author: Kathy Jesperson is editor for the National Environmental Services Center. Jesperson can be reached at [email protected].

Protecting public health and improving water quality are major goals of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many small communities find that achieving these goals, however, is overwhelming. Unlike their larger counterparts, they often lack funds, personnel and, many times, necessary equipment. But, fortunately, there is help.

Around the country, organizations and businesses supply technical assistance to small communities. Some charge nominal fees for their services, while others try to keep their assistance free of charge. Technical assistance providers can help small communities with the financial, managerial and technical ins and outs of running a drinking water or wastewater system. Most providers focus on meeting the needs of a particular community so that it can survive on its own once the technical assistance provider moves on to another community.

While there are many technical assistance providers, this article focuses on three: the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), the National Rural Water Assn. (NRWA) and the National Environmental Services Center (NESC).


RCAP’s technical assistance providers help small communities understand the intricacies of running drinking water and wastewater systems, according to Joy Barrett, director of training and technical services for RCAP. In many instances, RCAP staff members have been able to help small communities figure out how to revise their rate structures and develop a budget that allows them to properly account for operation and maintenance, systems personnel salaries, reserve accounts for future and unexpected issues and debt repayment services.

Most small systems rely on volunteer board members to make decisions that affect the entire organizational structure, Barrett added. While these boards are well intentioned, they often lack the skills and knowledge necessary to run a system efficiently. “Thank God for these people,” Barrett said. “They step forward to work extra hours despite having worked a full-time job. But they aren’t usually trained in the field.”

RCAP can help these individuals grasp the issues and become good at their jobs. A good example is rate setting. Many small systems have not raised rates in decades. Barrett attributes this to boards comprising elected positions. Once members serve their term, new board members are elected; the records of what happened before, however, are not communicated to the new board and rates, consequently, stay the same. This happens year after year.

RCAP is a national service-delivery network with regional offices. The organization’s website states that it helps small, rural communities.

RCAP programs provide:

  • Onsite technical assistance;
  • Training in the financial, managerial and operational areas of water and wastewater systems;
  • Educational resources; and
  • Financial resources.


Like RCAP, NRWA plays a critical role for small communities that need help. According to Jerry Biberstein, environmental engineer for NRWA, small systems often do not have the expertise necessary to resolve problems on their own. Without assistance, they likely will fail to meet regulatory requirements.

“Rural Water circuit riders come in and fill in the gaps,” he said. “These circuit riders are certified operators capable of providing the necessary level of expertise in regulatory issues, treatment techniques and emergency procedures.”

Furthermore, NRWA provides training and onsite technical assistance to wastewater systems in the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

According to NRWA’s website, the organization provides technical expertise to utilities that simply could not afford it individually. Through its state affiliates, the association serves more than 26,696 public water and wastewater utilities. Each state affiliate has a cadre of expertise to go on site and assist utilities in all areas of operation, management, finance and governance.

Rural Water state affiliates also provide emergency planning services. They have personnel with skills that apply in all types of emergencies, from flooding to hurricanes. While membership includes utilities of all sizes, NRWA’s primarily focus is on communities with populations of 10,000 or less. Small community water and wastewater systems comprise 94% of the public water systems in the U.S.


The clear communication services that NESC provides to its audience—small, rural drinking water and wastewater systems—have been a mainstay for the organization for more than 30 years. NESC provides quality information about regulatory compliance and sustainable water services, plus materials for improving small-system security and emergency response plans.

NESC considers itself a part of a national team of technical assistance providers by supplying clear, to-the-point fact sheets, articles, websites and training materials to those who need them. The organization also provides telephone consultation free of charge.

“The support materials that NESC supplies are not just for small systems, but for other technical assistance providers as well,” said Zane Satterfield, engineering scientist at NESC.

According to Satterfield, the main function of technical assistance providers is to help small communities run their drinking water and wastewater systems as efficiently as possible. He says, too, that the more programs that are available to small systems the better.

“The more avenues a small system has to ask questions—whether it’s NRWA, RCAP or us—the more comfortable [small systems] can be that they are doing a good job,” Satterfield said. “Keeping the public safe is ultimately their responsibility.”

About the Author

Kathy Jesperson