This post was originally published [link to post] on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute.

Rural Water Systems Need Immediate Investment to Prepare for Future Disasters

By Corianne Payton Scally, Rebecca Marx and Ines Polonius

Originally published April 7, 2022

KYLE, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 20: Lucas Velarde and Erin Purdy (L-R) fill water jugs for people at a drive through water distribution center setup at Jack C Hays High School on February 20, 2021 in Kyle, Texas. Winter storm Uri brought historic cold weather causing people to lose their city water source as pipes broke throughout the area. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 2022, Texans faced a second year of extreme winter storms. Though the storms were not as severe as in 2021, they showed that the state’s rural communities still are not ready to prevent another water crisis should temperatures dip so low for an extended period of time.

When Winter Storm Uri surprised Texans in February 2021, it simultaneously knocked out electricity and water supplies in rural communities that lacked ample access to backup generators. The lack of power meant water stopped flowing through systems’ aging pipes, which subsequently froze, resulting in a record-breaking number of burst pipes in the state.

Winter Storm Uri’s devastating effects highlighted the nation’s glaring water infrastructure challenges. An Environmental Protection Agency study found that the nation’s drinking water infrastructure needs $472.6 billion in investments through 2038. Another study found that, in 2019, up to 18 percent of each day’s treated water was lost (PDF) to leaky, aging pipes, representing a loss of around $7.6 billion in treated water that year.

Our research on two rural Texas water systems affected by Winter Storm Uri, in collaboration with Communities Unlimited and the University of Kentucky’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, highlights the need for proactive investments to build greater resilience for future disasters. Even though resource challenges are daunting, investment in rural water systems is critical to ensuring residents are healthy and communities can thrive.

Small rural water system failures jeopardize residents’ health and drive up costs

In the 500-person town of Mirando City, Texas, customers who experienced a water system shutdown during Winter Storm Uri told us that, at the height of a pandemic, they did not have enough water to maintain necessary hygiene and sanitation. Located 165 miles southwest of San Antonio, customers said they received bottled water for drinking, but they had no way to fill buckets with water so they could flush their toilets, wash their hands, or bathe.

The deep freeze in Mirando City was also expensive. Equipment failures and replacement costs, water loss, and the labor to repair leaks as the system came back online depleted the water system’s cash reserves. In fact, more than seven months after the freeze, the water system was still granting their staff time off to make up for overtime worked during the crisis, leading to ongoing staffing shortages. And in a town with a large and older adult population living on fixed incomes, the system does not have the ability to cover the excess equipment and labor costs by raising water rates.

Existing supports fall short of meeting system and customer needs

New government programs have recently launched to boost COVID-19 recovery and support infrastructure reinvestment. Although they are a significant improvement, they are still limited in scope.

Many programs focus on loans when small systems already struggle with debt. Of the $55 billion of new spending on drinking water, wastewater, and storm water infrastructure included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, at least 70 percent is expected to go through State Revolving Funds (PDF). These funds are dispersed as loans and tend to focus on larger water systems that can afford developing the plans and budgets needed to apply. In 2022, $7.4 billion has been allocated to states, tribes, and territories through State Revolving Funds. But historically, vulnerable communities facing water challenges have not received their fair share.

Existing funding for small systems is competitive and limited. The Small, Underserved, and Disadvantaged Communities Grant Program targets less-resourced communities to finance activities related to water infrastructure, and the US Department of Agriculture has rural development and environmental programs such as the Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program that provides funding for water and sewage systems in smaller rural areas and towns and on tribal lands. But these funding sources fall short of meeting the need.

Some systems are ineligible for help, including those that aren’t failing yet. Despite the growth in funding available for small water systems, some water service providers, like the Mirando City Water Supply Corporation, are left out. This is because they are not a government entity, and they have a strong track record of being compliant with federal water quality regulations (making it seem as if their systems don’t need help yet), even as their infrastructure ages and requires costly upgrades.

A new program to help customers pay their water bills is only temporary. The new Low Income Household Water Assistance Program will provide owners or operators of public water systems in Texas (PDF) and elsewhere with funds to restore service, pay arrearages, and reduce rates charged to households for services. But some program followers have critiqued the program’s slow rollout, and the program is not currently funded beyond 2023.

To improve resiliency, prioritize rural water infrastructure investments

With extreme weather events like Winter Storm Uri becoming more frequent, rural water systems need better supports to prepare for disasters. Specifically, small rural water systems would benefit from more grants and forgivable loans—made through existing programs—to meet their needs before their situation worsens. Additional resources would allow them to do the following without adding on more debt and raising rates on their struggling customers:

  • install generators to keep water pumping and flowing to customers and help prevent pipes from freezing and breaking when the power goes out
  • upgrade their lines and modernize their facilities so there are fewer breaks in the line during extreme events that stress the system
  • invest in monitoring systems that can help staff identify where the system is losing water faster, reducing the costs of both labor and lost treated water
  • stock extra maintenance supplies so they are available during an emergency and when supply chains are backed up
  • support extra staff so those with the knowledge to respond to system maintenance issues are not overextended

Winter Storm Uri provided valuable lessons about the on-the-ground realities of small water systems that are aging and underresourced yet critical to community health and prosperity—and how they will fare during extreme weather events. Immediate investments that build the resilience of rural water systems can ensure communities and water systems like Mirando City’s avoid the trauma of water loss and the cost burdens of an extended recovery.