RDOs and Water Systems: A Collaborative Effort
In much the same way that water systems consist of many interconnected parts all working together in support of the whole, a collaborative network of organizations and partners must also be in place to ensure that the system remains viable, efficient, and well-maintained. This network often includes utilities, local municipalities, elected officials, boards, and staff. Regional development organizations (RDOs) may also be a key part of this effort and provide services and resources in support of the healthy operation of water systems.
Known locally as councils of governments, regional planning commissions, Economic Development Districts, and other names, RDOs deliver a wide-ranging suite of services to local jurisdictions. Their diverse portfolio may include promoting place-based programs in the areas of planning, economic development, transportation, housing, infrastructure, workforce development, social services, and other sectors. RDOs are typically governed by a policy board consisting of local elected officials, along with representatives from the business community, educational institutions, the nonprofit sector, and the general public.
Though not all RDOs participate in the water systems sector, those that do can offer valuable resources and staff time to support local communities as they build, maintain, and upgrade their water systems infrastructure. These areas of expertise include writing and managing grants to access funding; collecting and analyzing data, statistics, and other key information; and serving as a convener to bring together key partners and stakeholders. With their emphasis on collaboration, RDOs can initiate projects and infrastructure improvements that promote efficiency, keep costs down for consumers, improve water quality, and more.
Teaching Tuesdays Webinar Series
Another valuable role for RDOs is to provide training and education to local and regional partners to ensure that those working on the ground are up-to-date on the latest resources, policies, and requirements impacting water systems. One powerful example of this is the “Teaching Tuesdays” webinar lecture series organized by the Lumber River Council of Governments (LRCOG). LRCOG is based in Pembroke, North Carolina and serves five counties and 36 municipalities in the rural southeastern part of the state. Recognized with an Impact Award from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) in 2021, 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.
“We designed Teaching Tuesdays as a series of three classes to attract elected leaders in particular, but also water and wastewater system staff,” says Jean Klein, LRCOG’s Regional Planning Director. Klein was responsible for developing the concept and identifying topics to be covered, coordinating speakers, and marketing the sessions. “The biggest challenge is getting local governments interested because even though they may be aware they have a failing system – you need to get them to understand what that failure means.”
Programming to Share the Latest Information and Resources
LRCOG staff were inspired to deliver Teaching Tuesdays in response to the creation of North Carolina’s Viable Utilities Program in 2020. This program, overseen by the State Water Infrastructure Authority and the Local Government Commission, aims to identify and support distressed utilities identified by the state with asset assessment and action plan development, training and education, and funding opportunities. The three webinar offerings were designed to share the latest information and resources with local stakeholders around these topics and better position small utilities to face their challenges head-on. Each of the sessions, held Tuesdays in March, May, and June 2021, featured around 25-35 regional leaders and partners from over six municipalities. “The timing of these webinars was strategic. They were held leading into the state’s application cycle” for water systems projects, says Klein.
The three sessions offered through Teaching Tuesdays were:
- Developing a Sustainable System: Understanding the New Viable Utilities Program – Provided an overview of the Viable Utilities Program, the process for local assessment, funding opportunities, and next steps for systems. Trainer: Kim Colson, Director of the Division of Water Infrastructure at North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (at time of presentation).
- So, You Have an Assessment Management Plan. What Now? – Addressed the fundamentals of an assessment management plan, an engineer’s perspective on these issues, connecting water systems to economic development, and developing a long term sustainability plan. Trainer: Jean Klein, LRCOG and Bill Lester, Principal, LKC Engineering.
- Water/Wastewater Utility Resiliency: How to Build a Financially Resilient System – Featured strategies for maintaining a resilient and viable utility, including a detailed look at rates, budgeting, performance indicators, and tools available to track progress. Trainer: Shadi Eskaf, Senior Project Director, University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center (at time of presentation).
A Replicable Approach
Technical assistance, training, and educational programming like Teaching Tuesdays offered by LRCOG’s staff support the organization’s stated mission to be “proactive in identifying local and regional needs and the resources to address those needs.” This effort demonstrates the value that regional organizations provide to their local communities and municipalities by lifting up opportunities and better positioning them for success and long-term viability. Says Klein: “We are looked at in the Lumber River region as a staff that understands the challenges and wants to help local governments make their water and sewer systems more sustainable.”
Teaching Tuesdays is a replicable training model that other regional organizations can embrace to better inform local stakeholders and elected officials about their own unique water system’s challenges and opportunities. Klein’s advice for staff at other regional development organizations: “At this level you are a broker of information – do your environmental scan, find out who needs to be at the table, identify your group of collaborators, and look for opportunities floating downstream.”
To learn more about regional development organizations (RDOs) like the Lumber River Council of Governments and how they can support your own local planning and infrastructure efforts, visit www.nado.org. If your community is not yet connected with your 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.
Special thanks to Lumber River Council of Governments’ Executive Director David Richardson and Regional Planning Director Jean Klein for their time and expertise in support of this case study.