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
Interested in the challenge of protecting public and environmental health without losing sight of the burden those goals may place on some segments of our society? The affordability challenge sits at the intersection of efforts to assure adequate investment in critical public health infrastructure with social and equity concerns and three recent pieces that came across my virtual desk over the last few weeks illustrate different perspectives related to the same challenge.
The UNC Environmental Finance Center (EFC) typically focuses on the role of local governments in directly providing and funding basic community environmental services such as water, wastewater, stormwater, and solid waste management. For example, the EFC recently released a set of resources related to local government stormwater fees that local programs use to fund their stormwater services. These types of resources help local governments raise funds for critical environmental protection activities but there are other ways that local governments can play a role in supporting environmental finance.
Recent news out of Brunswick County, North Carolina, highlights the fact that local governments can have a significant impact on environmental expenses paid to other branches of government as well. Continue reading
It seems like almost everyone, including regulators and utility organizations, recognize the benefits and need for expanded partnerships and collaboration in the water and wastewater sector. Small towns are finding it difficult to meet their growing infrastructure and regulatory needs and are talking with each other and their larger neighbors about different regional service models.
Partnerships are not limited to small systems; the cost of new water and wastewater supply is so great, that even large, financially healthy systems are increasingly working together to share costs and partner on large facilities. Most of these partnerships involve two or more utilities working together, but in at least one North Carolina county, one of the key partners in many of the region’s recent water partnerships is a local government that is not a direct utility service provider. For more than 20 years, Catawba County has assisted many of the municipalities in the county to install high impact water and wastewater projects without ever sending out a single water or wastewater bill to a retail customer. Continue reading
The Environmental Finance Center at The University of North Carolina recently completed a study which compiled and analyzed examples of alternative delivery models in nine communities across the country. This research was supported by EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center and through partnership with the West Coast Water Infrastructure Exchange. Most of the communities profiled used public private partnerships between private companies and governmental entities to build, upgrade and/or manage essential water or wastewater facilities. The models were diverse: one of the examples involved an innovative partnership between two governmental agencies – Allentown and the Lehigh County Authority. Another involved a partnership in Prince Georges County to install distributed stormwater facilities.
Alternative delivery models, particularly models that involve a high degree of private sector participation and private sector arranged financing, can generate significant passion both in favor and against the approach. Critics complain that profit motive in an area as important as public health and environmental protection can lead to unaffordable or inequitable services, while advocates see these partnerships as a way of providing an influx of expertise; creating structural financial incentives that promote performance; and allocating risk more effectively.
Our study looked at only a fraction of the alternative project delivery examples across the country, but in our analysis we encountered neither miracles nor devastation in the wake of these partnerships. What we found in most cases was the implementation of management approaches that, like so many other innovative tools, resulted in some challenging situations, but which when used prudently were able to advance a range of diverse local objectives. After reviewing promises and outcomes across the country, it became clear that communities entering into these approaches need to have realistic expectations. While we looked at a relatively small numbers of cases, we did notice some very important trends in outcomes that communities may want to consider when crafting expectations.