Written by: Dion Thompson-Davoli, Graduate Fellow at the National Association of Development Organizations; and Jack D. Kartez, Senior Advisor & Emeritus Director at New England Environmental Finance Center

This blog explains how regional development organizations (RDOs) can assist their local drinking water and wastewater systems in new ways. If you are part of a water or wastewater system, keep reading to learn how your area’s RDO can assist you with your system’s most pressing challenges.

Our local drinking water and wastewater utility systems face growing threats to maintaining their vital service to local communities and economies. The challenges are broad and diverse: changing weather behavior and sea level rise in many places; and cybersecurity threats and a declining workforce pipeline for almost all. Because of the importance of water and wastewater systems to local economic resilience, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) has partnered with the Environmental Finance Centers (EFCs) across the nation in the last few years to identify and promote how regional organizations can assist the local water sector.

RDOs are known locally as Economic Development Districts (EDDs), Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), Councils of Governments (COGs) and other names. Regional organizations know their member local government entities (and other public members) and work with them on a wide range of tasks. The table below summarizes needs of water systems that can benefit from collaborative help from the RDO(s) in their area. Opportunities for RDOs to be of assistance are growing. For example, the emergent One Water strategy approaches all water resources as vital—including surface, groundwater, re-use and stormwater management—and therefore must involve a wider set of entities and interests to achieve it. Another trend is the growing interest of water utilities in “community-based water resiliency” which requires reaching out in partnership to multiple sectors and organizations and customers beyond the traditional emergency preparedness network.  Combined funding from more than one federal agency for multi-benefit local projects is another trend requiring collaborative help from RDOs.


Water Sector Needs that Regional Organizations Can Assist With:

Collaboration and New Support Programs
1. Accessing expanded federal funding (under Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act) 6. Providing access to and tailoring workforce development programs to insure utility resilience.
2. Combining State Revolving Fund (SRF) applications with other programs (e.g. Community Development Block Grants) (w/ the Environmental Finance Centers as partners) 7. Engaging water utilities directly in the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS)
3. Searching innovative and non-traditional water funding sources (w/ the Environmental Finance Centers as partners) 8. Including water utility needs in areawide studies of resilience to climate change
4. Assessing financial health (w/ the Environmental Finance Centers as partners) 9. Assisting with workforce education through supporting peer exchanges
5. Assisting small water systems with managing grants 10. Helping support multi-community, multi-system regional collaboration for water
  11. Providing process facilitation support for EPA’s recommended Community-Based Water Resiliency (CBWR) practices.
  12. Access to technology such as Geographic Information Systems and cybersecurity education.


RDO staff can leverage their grant writing and project management expertise to help small water systems pursue funding from a mix of sources and provide guidance and oversight from initial grant preparation through the final project closeout. RDOs are also in a position to know about and provide bridges to other areawide development needs.

The last three years have seen unprecedented federal investments in infrastructure, resiliency, and economic recovery programs. Legislation like ARPA, BIL, and IRA have unlocked funding opportunities but require a lot of work for small systems to identify, pursue and manage funds if awarded. RDOs can help share the burden of work that comes with these new funding options. The municipal water system in Hazard, KY, for example, recently partnered with its regional association, the Kentucky River Area Development District (KRADD), to pursue a $5 million ARPA-funded grant to reconstruct its aging water treatment facility. A NADO/EFCN case study describes how KRADD leveraged its regional approach to tie the town’s infrastructure needs in with a broader economic development project that brought nearly 400 jobs to a nearby industrial park. Combining benefits is increasingly important to competitive application for funding  involving multiple sources.

RDOs can help small systems generate funding for infrastructure through facilitating partnerships and collaboration. An example of this is the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments’ partnership with the Grant County Water Commission to organize funding for a multi-phase project that will provide water to multiple towns through a region-wide water transmission system involving eighteen public and private entities. Another example of RDOs facilitating funding for collaboration among multiple water systems is the effort by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in northwest Massachusetts. FRCOG secured CARES Act funds for a study of needs and joint project opportunities for 33 small water and wastewater systems in their region. Read the case study here.

Possibilities for combining federal funding sources for local government services that have traditionally been separate are more important than ever. But it requires making the connection. The Northeast Mississippi Planning and Development District served as the coordinating agency for Marshall County and the state to combine USHUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, state funds and private investment by a multi-national company for water, sewer, gas and road improvements creating 134 jobs.  Opportunities to combine CDBG and EPA-generated State Revolving Fund (SRF) support for projects are growing and require multi-benefit and multi-purpose approaches.

Another valuable role for RDOs is to facilitate in-service education among water utilities. An example of this is the “Teaching Tuesdays” webinar lecture series organized by the Lumber River Council of Governments (LRCOG) in North Carolina, serving five rural counties and 36 municipalities. The LRCOG’s Teaching Tuesdays was a series of webinars organized with the purpose of educating key regional stakeholders and elected officials about North Carolina’s new Viable Utilities Program, funding opportunities, asset management strategies, and tools for building a financially resilient system. Read the case study here.

One of the emerging threats to water/wastewater system resilience is an aging workforce that is not being swiftly replenished. Workforce development is a core skill of many RDOs working with their areawide economies. An example of workforce partnering is the Green River Area Development District’ (GRADD) H2O—Hire-to-Operate program (Figure 1).  GRADD provides management and oversight of a multi-entity program including the U.S. Department of Labor and Kentucky Rural Water Association to recruit, train and place new water and wastewater operators for utilities across a four-county region through a registered apprenticeship program. Read the case study here.

Finally, RDOs have expertise in a number of technology areas serving their diverse members. Particularly relevant to small utilities is access to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools that many RDOs maintain, and which small utilities cannot mount themselves. RDOs can promote better access to tools and practices to support water and wastewater system cybersecurity.

The important step for water and wastewater systems to take is to reach out to their area RDO and discuss how their assistance can enhance not only utility operations, but the overall community and economic development mission. Partnering possibilities are only limited by interest in exploring them.