Tag: water (Page 1 of 3)

How Utilities in the Past have Saved Money during Economic Hardship: Similarities and Differences for COVID-19

Co-written by Erin Ansbro

Right now, water utilities are facing great uncertainty about the coming months and years. When will moratoria on water shut-offs end? When will water consumption be back to “normal”? Will utility staff get COVID-19? And the “Big One” — What will revenue loss be for utilities in the coming months and years? While answers to these questions remain unknown during these unprecedented times, guidance from the past can help utilities think through strategies that may save them money now and in the future. Here, we distill information from a previous EFC report about approaches utilities took in response to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and discuss how the findings relate to circumstances under COVID-19 conditions.

The report, written in partnership with the Water Research Foundation, comes from ideas discussed during a two-day forum with 17 CEOs of utilities which serve between 78,000 to 19 million customers. During the forum, leaders “discussed how they acted to mitigate the recession’s impact and adapt to a changed financial and economic environment” (p. xi). Although these approaches were used by large utilities, some may be appropriate for smaller utilities. These approaches are starting points for consideration, but are NOT intended to be a specific road map or a recipe for success. In addition to the overarching themes and summary, the report lists some future research needs and then gives details on the 48 strategies implemented by the forum participants. Continue reading

Does How Often You Pay for it Matter? The Impacts of Billing Frequency

Written by Stephen Lapp

At the Environmental Finance Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, we are always communicating that how you pay for it matters, but could how often you pay for it matter as well? It may seem counter-intuitive to think that receiving bills more regularly would be positive, but there are many reasons why utilities have trended towards monthly billing and away from bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or even annual billing. From FY2007 to FY2019, there has been an 8% increase in utilities that bill monthly in North Carolina, all of which switched from less frequent billing. Here are some reasons that water utilities are trending towards more frequent billing patterns: Continue reading

Operating at a Deficit: Solutions to a Water and Wastewater Operator Shortage

Daniel Willems is a fellow in the 2019 Leaders in Environment and Finance (LEAF) program. As part of the LEAF Fellowship, Daniel worked with Envirolink over the summer of 2019. Daniel is a second year Masters candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC. He currently works at the EFC as a Research Assistant on a water and wastewater regionalization project.

Across the country, communities are dealing with a shortage of water and wastewater treatment plant operators. This shortage –  largely due to retirements occurring in an aging workforce – is leaving many municipalities in need of immediate replacements or short-term transition plans.  Without qualified individuals to ensure state and federal standards are met for our drinking water and our wastewater, communities run the risk of failing to provide an essential public health service to their residents and local businesses.

Small, rural towns are particularly at risk.  Many of these municipalities rely on operators to be far more than just operators. Small water system operators are often the system record keepers and have extensive system knowledge that may not be written or stored anywhere but in their own minds.  A sudden retirement, illness, or extended leave has the potential to significantly impair system operations.

I learned about the importance of skilled operators and the issues that may arise when they are not present this summer as an EFC Leaders in Environment and Finance (LEAF) Fellow at Envirolink, a private utility management company.  Envirolink operates under a managerial capacity sharing model, which is a public-private regionalization solution. Below are three possible solutions I evaluated to forestall and alleviate the consequences of an impending operator shortage. Continue reading

Imagine a Day Without Water

Today, October 23, 2019, organizations across the county are urging people to “Imagine a Day without Water.” The event, coordinated by the US Water Alliance, is intended to remind us all about the value of water, and to push us to think for just a moment of where we would be without it.

When I recently attended the OneWater Summit in Austin, TX, also put on by the US Water Alliance, many stories were shared about the struggle communities and individuals are facing in Texas when water is scarce or contaminated or inaccessible. Whether the costs arise from hauling in bottled water for years to a community with a dried up well, or from the economic effects of a 6 day boil water notice in a city with a population of almost a million people, the immense value of clean, reliable and sustainable water sources is real for Texans. Continue reading

What Do Practitioners Think about Regionalization? Highlights from a Participatory Workshop on Regionalization

Many organizations and government agencies have studied and written about the potential benefits of regionalizing* the provision of water and wastewater services, but progress implementing this management tool has been relatively slow in many states including North Carolina.

*The terminology used to describe the transition from a more isolated independent service provision model to one that is more integrated is not always consistent or standardized. The term regionalization is used here to describe a range of different collaboration mechanisms that are commonly found in North Carolina and across the country.

Regionalized service provision can range from the creation of a new water utility by combining or merging two or more utilities; one utility absorbing or acquiring other utilities; or multiple utilities that choose to remain autonomous to some degree but share components of service provision such as water supply or water treatment. Many regions that appear to be ideal candidates for regionalization remain served by independent and often isolated utilities and when regionalization does occur, it is often a laborious process that can take years of planning and negotiation. While many regionalized systems thrive once they are created, others fail to fully meet their goals and may encounter a range of challenges including fiscal distress, recurring political and public disagreements, and the occasional lawsuit.

In order to learn more about practitioners’ regionalization experiences, expectations, and concerns, a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hosted an interactive workshop at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The event was designed to share emerging research and solicit practitioner views. Funding for the workshop was provided as part of a National Science Foundation project (award no. 1360442) funded by the Water Sustainability and Climate program. The workshop was attended by approximately 75 participants comprised of utility management staff, consultants that work with utilities, non-profit technical assistance providers, and state funding programs. Participants included staff from the state’s largest water utilities that provide service to hundreds of thousands of customers, all the way down to smaller rural utilities serving as few as 1,000 customers. Twenty-six separate utilities were represented. The workshop included research presentations, facilitated group discussions, audience polling, and small group exercises. Continue reading

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