What Role Should Your Utility Play in Your Community’s Development?

New_housing_development,_Sylvan_Drive_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1542010
Written by: Nick Willis

Nick Willis is a Program Manager with the Environmental Finance Center at Wichita State University. 

Most of the time water and sewer professionals focus on the day-to-day tasks of operating a utility. But how involved should utilities be in advancing the growth of their community? How does community development fit within the utility’s role to provide critical environmental and public health services?

When a community sets goals for growth and expansion, it likely will also ask utilities to expand services to any new development. But before acting, a utility must answer to its board of directors. The board of directors or equivalent commission holds the utility accountable for its operations. These directors adopt policies that guide how the  utility should respond to growth. A board can promote, discourage, or be indifferent to growth, but regardless of its view, it is important to keep the board’s opinions in mind before taking action.

When considering how to respond to growth, a utility should understand its capabilities to support various growth proposals.  Utility staff should be aware of system characteristics such as line size, sewer capacity and the rate limiting step (often a pump station or sewer lift station), as well as how each of these would be affected in the event of community expansion.  Knowing the borders the system, both topographically and politically, is also critical.  It is best to have easily accessible master plans and studies regarding how the utility plans to accommodate growth.When it comes to community development, it is very important that utilities be involved in the planning process. Being involved from the initial proposal all the way through to the final days of construction can help to prevent costly errors. Below are a few tips for utilities to make the most out of the community development process:

Floodplain development: When reviewing a proposal for community expansion, bear in mind that while the lot for a home may be above the floodplain, the street may be below the floodplain, leading to constantly flooded streets.

Large diameter dead-end water mains serving cul-de-sacs: Most utilities have neither the water nor the manpower to ensure that large dead ends maintain suitable quality. It is important to be aware that engineers designing systems may not be concerned about water quality, so it is a utility’s job to ensure that the correct water infrastructure is accounted for in the planning process.

Long blocks without mid-block fire hydrants: It is much more expensive to install a mid-block fire hydrant after the fact than it is to install it at the time of development. A utility must be cognizant of fire hydrant plans in order to allow for proper fire prevention coverage.

Isolated water towers: Isolated water towers often hold stagnant water, which reduces overall water quality. Water towers should be located in the center of a high demand area, and not on the outskirts of a high-demand area, such as a hill outside of town. Long term, expensive assets should be planned carefully, or a system risks costly changes later on.

Infrastructure Inspection: Mistakes and oversight during construction can lead to infrastructure that has a shorter life than anticipated. A utility should inspect waterlines, manholes, and other system infrastructure during construction to make sure that the new infrastructure has the longest possible life, thus cutting down on expensive repairs and replacements.

In the long-term, a utility’s water supply, physical assets and wastewater capacity must line up with a community’s goals and resources and should be cost effective and reasonable to operate.  Long-term planning has important impacts on long-term costs.  For example, if a utility is struggling with replacement costs and has 50 feet of sewer line per person, it would be unreasonable to expand the system to a new development where there are 100 feet of sewer line per person. Staying abreast of policies and expectations about development in regards to your utility can ensure that expansion occurs in the most logical and cost-effective way for your utility.

Water and wastewater utilities have a difficult job when it comes to managing community development. As a utility leader, it is important to communicate concerns to the board.  By being open and honest about what a system can and cannot do and the costs future growth pose to a system, utility leaders have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a well-functioning utility for years to come.