Written by: Brett Schwartz, National Association of Development Organizations (NADO)
Regional development organizations (RDOs) serve communities of all sizes across the country in a variety of ways to enhance planning, economic development, infrastructure, social services, and much more. These public-based entities play an invaluable role in fostering intergovernmental collaboration among federal, state, and local officials and deliver and manage various programs. For rural places in particular, RDOs can play a critical role in towns that may have limited capacity and resources due to part-time or volunteer staff that are tasked with carrying out the local functions of government. And because of their expertise and role as regional conveners, many RDOs serve as important players —though often behind the scenes — in supporting their region’s water systems.
One example of an effective RDO engaged with water systems is the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments (SWNMCOG). Based in Silver City, SWNMCOG serves a four-county region consisting of nine municipalities and a variety of special districts, including social and conservation districts and water associations. SWNMCOG’s staff provides a mix of assistance to these entities related to project and grant management, grant writing, financial management, and legislative assistance. Priscilla Lucero has been executive director since 2003 and in this edited and condensed interview she shares the work of her organization and how it is supporting water systems and local communities in a rural part of New Mexico.
Who are the local partners you engage with on water issues and what makes these partnerships work?
We work primarily with city managers, county managers, planners, local elected officials, and funding agency staff. Our job is to find the most feasible way to make a project happen and we have the relationships in the region to help foster collaboration. The most difficult thing with any funding mechanism is to
learn what works, what doesn’t, and how it intermingles with other funds. As a COG [Council of governments], we are able to see the big picture – what ties into what and what needs to be done to make something happen.
Whether you’re working with an incorporated or unincorporated community, a special district, a city, or a county, I think the most important thing is handholding and building trust. We have had success in our region by really getting to know the communities so they can trust us in seeking the funding for whatever the infrastructure need is.
What are ways to fund water systems in New Mexico?
We have some unique funding in New Mexico, including planning grants that allow us to ask for planning support so we can do an overall assessment of a water system that enables us to determine what needs to be done and at what cost. We also have the ability to tap into colonias dollars. The state dedicates a certain percentage of funding to colonias in southern New Mexico and we are able to leverage those with state and federal resources, allowing our monies to go further.
What are some of your achievements in supporting water systems in southwest New Mexico?
Our greatest achievements have been improving the water systems in the most rural areas of the state and supporting water districts that didn’t know about the availability of funding or how to seek out funding. We have done this by building the trust of the people in these rural communities.
We also have had private water systems and many private owners who never took care of their systems. They provided water but there wasn’t a focus on adequacy or testing or making sure that the proper infrastructure was in place. This situation created a hardship for many communities. Working together, we have been able to take those private systems and have them become public water systems and seek grant funds to rehabilitate the entire system.
What does regionalism look like in your area?
Twenty to thirty years ago, nobody was talking about working together. It was a fight more than anything else. Recently, we have been very successful in doing regionalized efforts around water. We have the Grant County regional water project, which has around $19 million in investment. It began in 2006 and we are in Phase 1, which has been 90% constructed. This project is a wonderful example of collaboration that has used a wide range of funding sources including from USDA, state colonias funding, Interstate Stream Commission money, and more. [To learn about this project, watch a recording of a November 2018 webinar from the Smart Management for Small Water Systems Project by clicking here].
How does water connect to your larger regional efforts, such as economic development?
Without water you can’t have economic development. So we have to ask: What are we doing today to protect our water? What are we doing to make sure we are doing everything possible to protect ourselves? Are we doing water source protection plans, drought mitigation plans, water conservation plans? We need to look to the future to make sure we are doing hydrology studies so we have that water. The minute you have an urgent need like lightning hitting a pump and we can’t provide water – there is no longer emergency funding available so we have no choice but to plan ahead. We have to figure out ways to make sure we are covering ourselves because we can’t be without our basic needs.
People need to think about the bigger picture – if water is all they do, that’s often all they think about. If transportation is all they do, that’s all they think about. If economic development is all they do, that’s all they think about. We need to see how these efforts are all integrated – you can’t be successful in one area without understanding the others.
The National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) is a membership association that, in partnership with the NADO Research Foundation, provides training, research, and advocacy support for RDOs from coast to coast. To learn more about RDOs and NADO, visit www.nado.org. If your community is not yet connected with your local RDO or you are unsure which RDO serves where you live, please reach out to NADO Research Foundation Associate Director Brett Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.