A tale of two towns regionalizing water services, and why the public should weigh in

Here’s an example in the news this week of regional water partnership, in its most common form (that is, at a local scale): Two towns in coastal New Hampshire – Exeter and Stratham – are considering an intermunicipal water and sewer system. Stratham, currently without town water and sewer services, would connect to Exeter’s system, allowing the two to pursue new infrastructure together.

Squamscott River, Exeter, NH (Photo credit: sskennel via Flickr Creative Commons)

Squamscott River, Exeter, NH
(Photo credit: sskennel via Flickr Creative Commons)

Proposals for exactly what the partnership agreement would look like are still in draft form, but on table is an arrangement wherein Stratham would pay Exeter somewhere between $8 and $12 million over a 20-year period to receive water services. This would mean its citizens would no longer have to rely on their own wells and septic systems, the latter of which presents a significant threat to local water quality when they fail. Exeter, considering a $40 million upgrade to its wastewater treatment plant, would benefit by sharing the cost burden.

This is a very important decision for these two towns, from both an economic and water security perspective. The end results would be better drinking water quality and better treated wastewater for the area, which means not only enhanced public health conditions, but a healthier surrounding ecosystem as well. And for coastal towns like these, avoiding wastewater issues means protecting the local shellfishing and recreational boating industries.

There are many towns across the U.S. facing this same decision, and this example is just one among a growing trend in regional approaches to drinking and wastewater services. This is because regionalization can create great efficiencies by leveraging economies-of-scale. For smaller communities facing resource constraints, this is particularly important. Most systems in smaller towns struggle to generate enough funds from their customers to cover the overhead costs just to keep running. Alternatively, increased revenue from a larger, combined rate-payer base can be put towards infrastructure upgrades (like in this case), but also other efforts such as ensuring compliance with drinking water or wastewater standards, ramping up conservation programs, and installing response systems for extreme events. It’s no surprise that the U.S.EPA and USDA encourage regionalization as a solution to a variety of water system challenges, especially in small communities.

What I find most interesting about the case of Exeter and Stratham — and why I chose to write about it here — is this: an editorial piece pleading for greater public involvement in the decision process. The editorialist writes:

While we know officials from both towns are working hard to go over the potential pros and cons of an arrangement and iron out all the details, feedback from the public could add a lot to the conversation….An agreement where Stratham buys water and sewer from Exeter would be a major step in terms of the regionalization of services, which could potentially be a win-win. But, regionalization is still a somewhat new concept that can be concerning to some. That’s another reason why it’s important to have a public process.

The writer suggests a public meeting dedicated to the issue “where residents from both towns can ask questions or express opinions.”

Yes! Yes yes yes! I could not agree more. Generating public buy-in and support through public outreach is essential to a successful partnership, and the absence of it can be a significant barrier to regionalization in the first place. I certainly found this to be the case in my research on the Oregon Coast. Let’s not forget that it’s the public who ultimately votes on bond measures to fund water infrastructure projects, and who elects (or chooses to not re-elect) city officials in charge of infrastructure decisions and project implementation. More importantly, as pointed out by the writer of this op-ed, involving the community at large brings a broader diversity of perspectives, expertise, and local knowledge to the process, which could raise concerns or ideas perhaps not considered by the individuals navigating the partnership negotiations. Sure, public meetings can be messy, but so is democracy. When the process is designed well (i.e. by professional public involvement specialists), it can be highly organized and productive.

As I’ve heard from professionals in this field, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in public administration, in which more and more decision-makers are recognizing the importance, and the value, of engaging stakeholders traditionally disenfranchised from decision-making. As such, we are seeing that public involvement and stakeholder engagement processes are increasingly being used in local water resource management and decision-making to help identify community-supported solutions to water resource issues. Good news for us interested in this stuff.

So YES, Exeter and Stratham, hold that public meeting, and see what new ideas come out of it.

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Here’s the op-ed, dated November 1, 2013.

For more examples of regionalization like this, check out this EPA report, “Gaining Operational and Managerial Efficiencies Through Water System Partnerships.”