Circuit Rider Viewpoint

Tuesday, May 01, 2007 - Written by Roger Bennett - Circuit Rider

Roger Bennett
Circuit Rider
California Rural Water Association 

Iris Connection, Inc. - Interview with Roger Bennett:

1.   You have mentioned that the most important advice for Small Water Systems would be to save money, to create a reserve for the inevitable future expenditures.  How much money?

A.  As a general rule of thumb, I recommend a “Capital Replacement Reserve” of at least the cost of the most expensive item in the system that would require replacement in the future.  Unfortunately, there are too many water systems that have little or NO reserves, and depend on emergency assessments or the hope that they can get a grant to cover the replacement costs.

2.   Getting a loan from the USDA is quicker and more certain than the 2-3 year waiting period for a grant.  What are the conditions that need to be met in order to qualify for a USDA loan?

A.  Obtaining funding from the USDA is a relatively simple process.  The USDA Rural Development office requests that a Preliminary Application (SF 424) which describes a project and provides basic information including estimated costs, and includes the Median Household Income (MHI) of the community.  Along with the Application, they need a Preliminary Engineering Report (PER) prepared and signed by a Registered Professional Engineer.  After reviewing the “Preapp” and the PER, and finding it acceptable, they will notify the community to proceed with the full application process.  The entire process, if properly followed through, can take in the neighborhood of six months, and COULD be shortened, if everything is expedited.

3.   You visit at least 30 Water Districts a month and a large number of them are out of compliance with government regulations.  What is your mission, the service you offer?

A.  California Rural Water Association (CRWA), through the National Rural Water Association (NRWA) has a contract with the USDA to provide Technical Assistance and Training to community water systems with populations of less than 10,000.  As a Circuit Rider under that agreement, I am tasked to contact and provide assistance to at least 35 systems each month.  I will visit the systems and assist them in a number of ways to comply with the regulations and requirements.  CRWA presently has a field staff of thirteen, and an office staff of 9.  The CRWA Mission Statement reads: “To meet the needs of member water and wastewater systems by providing quality information, training, technical assistance and legislative representation, and assist them in maintaining a high standard of service to their communities.”  That is an all-encompassing statement of our mission.  In addition to the technical assistance and training provided by those of us in the field, CRWA also provides a wide variety of training courses which are held at various locations throughout the state in order to reach as many people as possible.  We have more than 250 training days scheduled this year, for example.

4.   Why are so many Water Districts under-funded and what kind of government pressure will they encounter in the near future?

A.  You are correct; MANY of the nearly 8,000 rural communities in California are severely under-funded.  There are a number of reasons why this has occurred.   Some of them are: 1.) Although the costs of operation and maintenance of water districts have grown, as have all other costs in this country, the boards and management of many of the districts refuse to increase rates because they do not want to place any further burden on the users of the system, and it is easier to remain popular by not raising rates.  2.)  Many of the systems do not have any financial planning experience, and base their rates on the actual costs of providing their services, rather than setting aside, or otherwise budgeting for increasing costs.  3.)  Unfortunately, there are SOME systems that feel that they will be “bailed out” by the use of grants or other funding if anything goes wrong with their system.  4.)  Then there is the “crystal ball” that all systems must look into to determine if there will be regulations and requirements that will be increasing their costs of compliance.  If these systems could stay more aware of upcoming regulations, they could better plan to implement the proper compliance.  The compliance issue is probably the most difficult issue facing the districts at this time.

5.   Do most board members of Small Water Districts understand their liability?  What do you advise them (those that do not understand) to do?

A.  Many board members do not understand their liability, both to the users of the system, as well as the regulators and other agencies that are involved.  For example; recently, my counterpart (Dustin Hardwick) in Southern California spoke with a gentleman who was president of his board, and also working in the operation of the system.  Dustin stressed the liability he was carrying, and suggested that the system take out liability insurance.  Meanwhile, this gentleman, recognizing the liability resigned his position.  Also, the term “liability” causes my ears to perk up, because a large number of directors have no concept of the liability they have in the provision of services and protecting the public’s health and safety.  In this case, ALL districts should have general liability insurance as well as Director’s liability insurance.

6.   What are some of the important issues, tasks, procedures that need to be undertaken to manage a Water District effectively?

A.  Wow, we could write a book to properly respond to this question!!  However, we’ll give it a try!  Number one on the list would be well planned financial stability.  Next, a thorough asset management program, where the system’s entire infrastructure, equipment and all other property is inventoried, estimated life expectancies and estimated replacement costs are determined, and a program is developed to set aside adequate funds for future maintenance and/or replacement.  At a MINIMUM, regular maintenance tasks should be undertaken immediately, such as:  main line flushing, hydrant maintenance (including painting), and most important, regular valve exercise and maintenance programs.  This would include locating and uncovering buried valves that have been covered with dirt or paved over.  Another extremely important task that is all too frequently ignored is accurately monitoring and keeping records of the operation of the system.  This includes, not only laboratory analyses, but also monitoring the production and operation of such things as meter readings reflecting water consumption (or loss), tank levels, flow rates, system capacities, etc.

7.   How do you see remote monitoring and control of the water delivery system advantageous to managing a Small Water District?

A.  I see so many small systems that have their storage tanks, water sources, and treatment facilities in such remote areas that it is nearly impossible to monitor their performance on a regular basis.  What happens?  For example, if the well pump fails and the storage tank falls dangerously low of water, and the entire community could lose their supply.  The chlorination system may break down for some reason, and there is no way of knowing if it occurred unless someone happens to see it at some later time.  Meanwhile, contamination could enter the system causing serious illness, among the community members.  With remote monitoring, the operators of the system can have immediate access to the condition of the entire system, sensing possible breakdowns before they become dangerous.