The Pacific Institute, in collaboration with project partners, is providing information for advocates and policymakers to address revenue declines experienced by U.S. small community water systems and debt accumulation by their customers due to the COVID-19 crisis.

More than 45,000 small community water systems (defined as those serving fewer than 10,000 people) exist in the United States. These small community 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.

The Challenge

Small community water systems often lack financial reserves. Despite their critical role in providing a vital resource to their communities, they are frequently overlooked in state and federal stimulus and aid packages. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has affected small systems disproportionately, jeopardizing both the financial health of the water systems themselves and the public health and welfare of the people they serve. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing challenges for the water systems and poorer communities faced with rapidly rising water bills, financial and cyber insecurity, and the rising costs of treating new contaminants in their water and wastewater.

Analysis of national and California level surveys shows the unequal distribution of direct and indirect impacts on small community water systems, including impacts to revenues and expenses, staffing, financial reserves, and affordability and debt among their customers. The financial hardships of the pandemic are leading to delays in capital projects and rate increases, which may have long term impacts on the ability of small systems to supply safe water to their customers.

Case Studies and Data Reveal Scope of Impacts

A set of case studies demonstrates the breadth and depth of challenges small community water systems face due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the U.S. These case studies highlight the water system struggles within real communities affected by the pandemic. The case studies include 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.

In addition to the case studies, a data summary reveals the impacts of COVID-19 on small community water systems in California. Meanwhile, a spreadsheet will soon be available containing raw, anonymized data from two California State Water Resources Control Board surveys, a May survey from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), and two surveys from the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association. The data will be downloadable for analysis and will contain summaries of all the data sources.

The Study Team

The Pacific Institute and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership collaborated on this study. An advisory group (including representatives from Clean Water Action, the Community Water Center, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the Water Foundation) provided suggestions and recommendations on methods, data sources, and policy recommendations and reviewed earlier drafts of the materials posted here.

In This Series