Rural Center Early Water Projects


From its earliest days, the Rural Center recognized the importance that plentiful clean water and the infrastructure to support it both play in the economic success and quality of life in rural North Carolina. For this reason, it has taken a leading role in public policy initiatives designed to assist rural communities in developing and expanding water and sewer infrastructure. The Water 2030 Initiative built on this legacy.


Public policy research and advocacy

Rural Center initiatives have paved the way for new and expanded programs to improve clean water infrastructure. In the process, some have established national precedents.


"Who'll Foot the Bill?"

The center's creation in 1987 coincided with changes to the federal Clean Water Act that reduced grant funding for water and wastewater improvements. One of its first research reports "The Waste Crunch in Rural North Carolina: Who'll Foot the Bill?" found that, absent grant programs, 88 percent of rural communities could not afford much-needed wastewater construction projects. Neither their tax base nor revenue from user fees was adequate to qualify for public or private loan programs. In response to the report, the General Assembly in 1990 expanded eligibility for the state's Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund to more low-wealth communities and communities without sewer systems.


"Living Without the Basics"

In May 1990, the Rural Center and the North Carolina Rural Communities Assistance Project released another eye-opening report. "Living Without the Basics: The Hidden Water and Wastewater Crisis in Rural North Carolina" documented the startling number of North Carolinians 250,000  living in homes without complete indoor plumbing. Minorities, the poor and the elderly were most affected. The report brought state and national attention to the public health and environmental problems caused by inadequate plumbing and to the need for creative solutions to the infrastructure financing problem.


As recognition of the issues increased, the state of North Carolina took additional action. The General Assembly established two programs to help small, low-wealth rural communities with water and sewer improvements. The Supplemental Grants Program was created to help those communities provide required matching funds for other state and federal infrastructure programs. The Capacity Building Grants Program assisted local governments with the planning phase of water and sewer projects. Both programs, administered by the Rural Center, have been funded continuously since 1993. In a separate measure, the N.C. Division of Community Assistance designated $1 million in grants to eliminate outhouses by rehabilitating 50 homes.


"Our Livelihood, Our Life”

As the center worked with the state and rural communities on water and wastewater issues, it realized serious inadequacies in available information on existing infrastructure. Estimates of needed improvements, for example, were based on data collected in the 1970s. In answer, the center launched the groundbreaking North Carolina Water and Sewer Initiative. The three-year initiative included an in-depth assessment of 659 water and sewer systems in 75 predominantly rural counties and resulted in the nation's first comprehensive, standardized information base on a state's public community water and sewer systems. The initiative identified $11.34 billion in investments in water and sewer systems needed over the next 20 years. This doubled previous estimates.


The 1998 report "Clean Water: Our Livelihood, Our Life" documented the findings of the initiative and outlined a number of recommendations, including a clean water bonds proposal and encouragement of regional solutions to water and sewer needs. Two other publications resulting from the initiative -- a guide to financing for system owners and local government officials and a report tracking actual funding for water and sewer projects -- continue to be updated periodically.


The report also served as a blueprint for state action. Rural Center staff collaborated with state lawmakers in writing a bill proposing the 1998 Clean Water Bonds referendum and advocating its passage. North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved the bonds that November. The referendum authorized $800 million in investments to address critical water and wastewater projects, including funds designated for the Rural Center's Supplemental and Capacity Building Grants Programs and for a new Unsewered Communities Grants Programs, also to be administered by the center. Learn the bonds accomplished. Link to Impact of 1998 Clean Water Bonds.


"Water Woes"

More recently, the center has turned its attention to the supply of fresh water. Throughout most of its history, North Carolina has been a water-rich state, with abundant surface and ground water. This is changing, however, as a growing population places additional demands on a finite resource. In 2002, alarm over dwindling aquifers in the east forced the state to establish the Central Coastal Plain Capacity Use Area and to adopt rules requiring 11 counties to reduce ground water withdrawals by 25 percent within six years.


Working with leaders from 15 counties in the capacity use area, the Rural Center sought to identify ways affected communities could adapt to the new restrictions. As part of the effort, the center commissioned two studies. One examined the region's aquifers, their storage capacity and replenishment rates. The second addressed the economic impact of the new rules. The resulting report, "Water Woes in Eastern North Carolina: Facing the Facts, Reaching Solutions," summarized those findings and offered a number of recommendations, from developing new surface water systems to exploring water reuse and stepping up water conservation efforts statewide.


Community-based research and demonstration

As its major initiatives have addressed broad public policy questions, the Rural Center's research and demonstration grants have assisted local communities and organizations addressing more specific needs. The largest of these grants  $700,000  went to the Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority to conduct pilot tests for a new regional water plant and system. The proposed system was in response to rules governing the Central Coastal Plain Capacity Use Area. Other projects funded by the R&D program have included:

  • a study of wastewater disposal needs for economic growth in four rural counties
  • a research project of the N.C. Rural Communities Assistance Project www.ncrcap.org looking at alternative septic systems. The project resulted in two "Considering the Alternatives" publications, one a guide for wastewater management in small communities and the other for on-site wastewater systems.
  • a feasibility study of water and sewer alternatives for eastern Bladen and Columbus counties
  • a feasibility study for a five-county sewage system by the Lumber River Council of Governments
  • a feasibility study of regional water resources in Albemarle County
  • the Installment Purchase Pilot Project, testing whether grant assistance could help low-income communities acquire private financing for infrastructure improvements


Infrastructure grants programs

Through its water and sewer grants program, the Rural Center manages the state's largest infrastructure grants portfolio. Each program has a different emphasis, but all assist low-income communities with investments that further public health, environmental protection and/or economic development.