Small Community Water Systems Struggle to Provide Safe Water at Reasonable Cost
Concord, N.H. – In the recently released New Hampshire Water Resources Primer, The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services identified struggling small drinking water systems as one of the state’s top drinking water issues.For approximately 60 percent of New Hampshire residents, when they open the tap at home, the water comes from a community water system. While private water systems – those that serve fewer than 15 service connections or 25 people – are not regulated in terms of the water they supply, community water systems are closely regulated under state and federal law. Many of these systems – particularly the small systems – have a difficult time complying with federal requirements designed to ensure that the water they supply is safe.
“Eighty percent of the more than 700 community water systems in New Hampshire are very small, serving fewer than 500 people,” according to Sarah Pillsbury, administrator of the Drinking Water and Groundwater Bureau at DES. “Often, these are private residential communities managed by volunteer residents with only limited time and resources to tend to the ongoing financial and technical needs of the water system.” Most small community water systems do not have staff with the necessary operator’s licenses, so they contract with a certified operator to meet regulatory requirements.
“Community systems, regardless of size have to meet changing federal drinking water standards. But they don’t have the economies of scale that larger systems benefit from,” notes Marco Philippon, distribution manager for Pennichuck Water Works in Nashua. “A water quality process change for a 25-home system and a 125-home system have similar basic requirements. But the 125-home system can spread the costs over a larger base keeping the per-home costs much lower than the smaller system.” Pennichuck owns 60 community water systems and operates another 88 on a contract basis. Philippon, who is also a director of the New Hampshire Water Works Association, sees the daily struggles these systems face.
Costs for operators, quality sampling, treatment processes, reporting, as well as necessary parts replacements on the older systems, put small systems in a difficult position. “These economy-of-scale issues tend to be compounded over time,” according to Philippon. “Because of limited revenues and lack of preventive maintenance, infrastructure and equipment replacements are often deferred too long, resulting in significantly higher costs later on. We often see that when we acquire a small system or when we are contracted to operate a system. Better planning, including management of water rates and setting aside capital reserves for required upgrades, are key for the long-term sustainability of the system, as well as continued regulatory compliance.”
When necessary improvements are needed, getting grants or low interest loans can be a difficult undertaking. Fortunately, small systems can get help from DES, from New Hampshire Water Works Association, and from a number of government-supported organizations.The New Hampshire Water Resources Primer is available from DES at 271-2975 or at www.des.nh.gov and look under “Hot Topics.” The Primer is also the subject of a series of public meetings currently being held throughout the state; a schedule of meetings is available at http://des.nh.gov/media/pr/2009/090306.htm.
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