Recent water rate increases for the Town of Mantachie coupled with the partnering of the Public Service Commissioner’s office and Mississippi Rural Water Association to resolve the long-standing moratorium against Northeast Itawamba Water Association have opened the door to asking exactly who holds what responsibility when it comes to local residents having safe drinking water.
Before water reaches local homes and businesses, it must pass through a host of entities who “tap” it safe for human consumption.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mississippi Department of Health (MDH), Public Service Commission (PSC), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Mississippi Rural Water Association (MRWA), and local water associations must follow the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) passed by Congress in 1974 as well as regulations set within their own organizations.
Financing infrastructures, testing maximum contaminant levels, water supply assessments, and proper training and operations are all a part of the process of assuring water is safe.
To meet the high cost of rural water infrastructures, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) assists rural water associations with longterm, low-interest loans through their Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program. Funding can be used to build, maintain or modernize or water systems in rural communities of 10,000 people or less.
In 2018, The Monroe Journal reported Cason Water District (CWD) received a $2.1 million loan and a $1.9 million grant to install surface water transmission lines from Northeast Mississippi Water Supply in Peppertown. The district serves a large portion of southwest Itawamba County in Carolina, Evergreen and Peaceful Valley areas. The project will correct water supply loss to the district’s 1,657 customers across both Monroe and Itawamba counties.
Along with revenue generated at the local level, the USDA is the primary funding agency for rural water associations like Cason.
When it comes to testing, the United States Environmental Agency (EPA) sets national limits on contaminant levels in drinking water to ensure the water is safe for human consumption.
Water association compliance with standards set by the EPA is monitored by the Mississippi Department of Health. Community water systems are required to deliver to its customers a brief annual water quality report by means of advertisement in the local paper, on the customer’s water bill or via email.
MSDH also completes a capacity assessment rating for each association along with a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). Assessment evaluations span the scope of the water operation, equipment deficiencies, up-to-date storage tank inspections, issues with pressure, and system overloads.
Dorsey Water Association’s CCR, dated June 19, 2019, shows the district’s contaminant levels well below the national levels set by the EPA.
Processed reports for local water associations are available to the public on their website msdh.ms.gov.
When it comes to rural water associations, the Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates their quality of service, their license to do business in the state and establishes the physical boundaries in which they serve.
Water rate increases for rural customers must be approved by the PSC’s office. As in the case of Mantachie’s recent increase, residents inside the town’s limits saw the increase in billing when town officials approved it, but residents outside the city’s limits must wait on approval by the commission before it’s passed along.
As stated on their website, the commission also answers complaints, makes investigations and holds formal and informal hearings when necessary.
As in the case of Northeast Itawamba Water Association, a moratorium was issued by the MDH after overcapacity issues had not been resolved. The issue was resolved after the PSC partnered with the Mississippi Rural Water Association.
“We linked the two systems and resolved the issue quickly and efficiently by partnering with the Mississippi Rural Water Association,” Presley said. “The partnership allowed us to bring in the people that actually train these rural water operators and help get the association back on track.”
Mississippi Rural Water Association (MRWA) is located in Raymond, Mississippi. Its primary function is to oversee training and certification of rural water association’s in every capacity.
Water operator training includes operator responsibilities, quality testing and MSDH regulatory updates.
Training for office personnel, board members and backflow certification are also apart of critical training.
The new partnership between the MRWA and the PSC allows them to step in and resolve ongoing issues with rural water associations, as in the case of Northeast Itawamba.
Similar to that of a larger utility cooperatives, rural water associations such as Dorsey, Houston-Palestine and Northeast Itawamba, are owned by their membership (customers who are paying users of the service). Each association sets their own bylaws and hosts an annual meeting for the purpose of electing a board to oversee operations. Members are notified prior to the election by notification on their water bill.
Municipality water departments are regulated by their city officials.
Rural board members oversee the general operations of the association including setting rates; determining employees pay and benefits; financing of projects; and answer on behalf of the association to the proper authority when state standards are not met.
Boil water notices are issued when the system loses pressure. It’s the responsibility of the local association to notify its customers directly using whatever means necessary when a self-imposed boil water notice is issued.
When MSDH’s Public Health Laboratory indicates problems related to water quality, a state-issued boil water alert is issued vial press release. The local water system is again responsible for notifying customers directly.
Funding, testing, commissions, and departments, each crossing into the regulations and responsibilities of it’s counterpart, in the end, bring safe drinking water to both municipalities and rural areas. Though seemingly tangled, when the system works, it’s a definite path to a purified precious resource.