Significant COVID-19 Impacts on Some U.S. Small Community Water Systems, Finds New Report

May 13, Oakland, California –– The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on some small community water systems in the U.S., finds a new report from the Pacific Institute, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, and the Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Customer Debt and Lost Revenue: The Financial Impacts of COVID-19 on Small Community Water Systems finds that in some cases small community waster system losses led to these systems operating at a deficit, delaying maintenance and capital projects, or increasing rates for customers, with revenue losses of up to 30%. Providing financial assistance at the federal level would boost small community water system resilience, ensuring access to safe, affordable water for the millions of Americans who rely on these systems.

More than 45,000 small community water systems (defined as those serving fewer than 10,000 people) exist in the United States. These water systems are distributed across the country, serving 53 million people across rural and urban settings, on Tribal reservations, in the midst of huge metropolises, and in growing communities.

“Before the pandemic, small water systems already faced barriers to accessing financing for maintenance and capital projects,” explains report co-author Darcy Bostic. “The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing challenges for both these water systems and the often low-income and disenfranchised communities they serve. These communities face rapidly rising water bills, financial and cyber insecurity, and the rising costs of treating new contaminants in their water and wastewater.”

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic on water systems, only California, North Carolina, Illinois, and Washington have surveyed their water utilities to estimate the financial and economic impacts of the pandemic, and California and North Carolina are the only states that have provided public information about household water debt during the pandemic.

To tackle the lack of data, the report authors conducted interviews across the U.S. with small community water systems and the communities they serve, compiling case studies that demonstrate the breadth and depth of challenges small community water systems face during the pandemic. The case studies focus on the Hilmar County Water District in California, the Sultana Water District in California, the Village of Chama in New Mexico, and the Village of Manokotak in Alaska.

The report lays out a set of detailed recommendations for federal funding for small community water systems, as well as recommendations focused on aid for underserved communities in order to ensure equitable access to water and wastewater. For example, the authors suggest states or the federal government could eliminate late fees and reconnection fees, especially for low-income customers who are more likely to be disconnected as a result of non-payment. Utility-focused aid should include the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (including grants and zero interest loans to local governments), sewer overflow control grants, water workforce development grants, and grants for lead treatment, remediation, and replacement. Regardless of the mechanism aid is provided through, specific attention should be given to small community water systems and their customers to ensure they are included.

Learn more and download the report here