Planners Can Collaborate on Drinking Water Improvement in Small Communities

The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) and the American Planning Association are members of the Source Water Collaborative, a group of 28 national organizations that have united to protect America’s drinking water at the source — in the lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers we tap for drinking purposes.


The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) represents drinking water program administrators from each of the 50 states, the territories, the Navajo Nation, and the District of Columbia. These administrators regulate and provide technical assistance and funding for public water systems throughout the U.S.

This article is a first step to share information about a potential working collaboration between state drinking water programs and planners to help small or disadvantaged communities meet their public health protection responsibilities in a reasonably sustainable economic mode. 

Planners at the state, county, and community levels are in a unique position to help small and disadvantaged communities with their drinking water systems by:

  • Promoting the value of a well maintained and operated water system to spread the word that safe drinking water is vital for public health and the community’s economy and welfare.
  • Providing information to the communities about the special Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) loan provisions that are available for them and helping them get technical assistance.

The Town of Port Royal, Virginia, provides an excellent example. Port Royal has a very small water system with 85 connections, and there has been minimal maintenance since it was built 60–70 years ago.

A site visit to Port Royal, Virginia, to see the rebuild of and repairs to the drinking water system, including the existing elevated storage tank. The 2018 visit was hosted by the Virginia Department of Health and Dewberry and included representatives from EPA, ASDWA, and other partner organizations. Photo courtesy ASDWA.

A site visit to Port Royal, Virginia, to see the rebuild of and repairs to the drinking water system, including the existing elevated storage tank. The 2018 visit was hosted by the Virginia Department of Health and Dewberry and included representatives from EPA, ASDWA, and other partner organizations. Photo courtesy ASDWA.

The town essentially needed to replace its entire water system except for two existing wells. Town residents’ commitment pushed this project to the finish line in partnership with:

  • Virginia Department of Health’s (VDH) Drinking Water Program, which provided a loan and grant through its DWSRF;
  • USDA’s Rural Development (RD), which provided a loan and a grant;
  • Southeast Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), which provided a search grant for a revised Preliminary Engineering Report (PER) as well as funding for emergency repairs to the existing elevated storage tank;
  • Community Engineering Corps (CEC), which provided engineering services.

Construction of the new distribution system, storage tank, pump building, and emergency generator installation was completed in November 2018.

Over the years, state drinking water programs have worked to reach out to small or disadvantaged communities to offer this type of funding and technical assistance. However, in many cases, drinking water system owners and operators don’t know that special DWSRF loan provisions are available to reduce overall costs, or are uncertain about application requirements, completing the application, understanding what the loan entails, and whether, how, or when it may need to be repaid.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act:

  • State drinking water programs can provide DWRSF loans with principal forgiveness, or with 0 percent or low interest, for what can essentially be a grant with low or no payments to these small water systems in disadvantaged communities.
  • The recently passed America’s Water Infrastructure Act (S. 3021) will require states to reserve a minimum of 6 percent (and can use up to 35 percent) of their annual DWSRF capitalization grant to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities and has extended potential loan terms to 40 years. States could use help from local planners to engage the decision makers and reduce the intimidation factor that often accompanies state outreach efforts.
  • Free technical assistance is available for these communities to help with DWSRF loan applications from organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and state Rural Water Associations.
  • Assistance is also available for engineering design work from some states and other organizations such as the Community Engineering Corps.
  • In addition, ASDWA’s Capacity Development webpage includes more information and links to resources on the Capacity Development process for water systems to acquire and maintain adequate technical, managerial and financial capacity.

ASDWA is looking forward to working with APA on efforts to identify interested communities and instill greater confidence in these communities where planners are well known to water system administrators.

Top image: Child takes a drink from a water fountain. Photo by Flickr user Jeff Turner (CC BY 2.0).


Headshot of Deirdre White.
About the Author

Deirdre White

Deirdre White (Mason) is a project manager with the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators where she has worked since 1992. For the past 16 years, she has worked with state drinking water programs on emerging contaminants, source water protection, sustainability, security, small systems, asset management, infrastructure funding, operator certification, and workforce issues. Contact her at dwhite@asdwa.org or 703-812-4775.

August 2, 2019

By Deirdre White