Planning for future water needs of small rural communities in the west

Tena Campbell, P.E.
Project Manager
Bowen, Collins & Associates
Board Member, APWA Utah Chapter

Water in the western United States is a precious commodity. Many states such as Utah are considered to be desert climates and providing the quality and quantity of water to support the inevitable growth is an ongoing battle. Finding, developing and sustaining water supplies provides a challenge that most rural communities struggle to overcome. To maintain service to development, communities must be constantly planning ahead.

Planning for the future can be a daunting task. Smaller communities generally do not have the resources needed for proper planning, and they may become overwhelmed with the task. Planning is generally triggered after an accounting of the existing system supplies has been done or an event has occurred which drives the need for more source, storage or distribution. The timeframe used for planning is typically 10-20 years for distribution lines, 20-30 years for transmission lines and 50+ years for supply sources. The following steps outline the planning process that rural communities can follow.

Funding the Plan: Most rural communities do not have the staff or qualified resources required to develop a plan for their future water needs. This task generally is contracted out to a consultant who can guide them through the development of the plan, but consultants cost money. Funding can be obtained for small communities through state and federal programs which are set up specifically for the rural cities and towns. A few examples are the State Revolving Fund (SRF) Program and the USDA Rural Development Utility Funding Program for Rural Communities. These programs offer loan/grant combinations that are attractive to small communities. In addition, the Rural Water Association has state chapters set up that can assist rural communities with applying for funding at little or no cost. The funding agencies encourage small and rural communities to develop these plans by providing planning fund options. Most construction project funding requires rural communities to have plans in place to qualify for the funds. The consultant fees for developing the plan for small communities can be up to $50,000 depending on their complexity. Larger water systems may spend up to $150,000 for a plan.

Demand Forecast: Once funding is secured and resources are in place, the planning process can begin. First, a community must first understand what their current and future needs will be. Some speculation of future growth is necessary to set the goal for the plan. The Census can help to provide forecasting numbers. Also, state-operated departments like the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget can provide some assistance with projections. Typical information used for demand forecasting is water billing data, weather data, demographic data and economic data. This information is used to develop per capita and land use projections.

Evaluate Need for Additional Sources: Once the demand is forecasted, the need for additional supplies can be evaluated. This involves looking at existing sources and determining their long-term yield. This would include evaluating the annual production, peak production and seasonal availability of each source. It also includes managing the demand on the existing sources allowing them to last longer. Management of demand can delay the requirement for developing new sources by maximizing the existing supplies.

Identify Water Supply Options: After comparing the existing supplies to the projected demands, the supply deficit can be determined. The community then needs to examine all possibilities for new sources of supply. These may include groundwater supplies, new or expanded surface supplies, purchased water from other suppliers, importation of water through wholesale suppliers, and reuse water. Each of the available options should be considered and all issues associated with each option should be evaluated. These issues may include:

  • Regulatory requirements for the source such as crossing state boundaries with supply, development of the source, and monitoring and reporting.

  • Water quality of the source. Determining if partial or full treatment be required, and if the source be worth the investment to develop if the water quality is questionable.

  • Proper protection of the new source and any existing sources in the same area should be considered.

  • Public perception and acceptance can play an important role in getting approval to construct, operate, maintain and protect the new source.

  • Adequate water rights should be available for the source before considering its development. In the western United States, the appropriation doctrine of water rights is used.

  • The life of the new source should be evaluated. If it will only be available seasonally or for a limited number of years, it may not meet the projected demands.

  • The yield of the new source and the potential impacts on adjacent existing sources must be considered. For example, if a groundwater well may influence other existing wells in the same aquifer, it may not be permitted for construction.

  • The environmental impacts of the new source can rule it out before it can be constructed. All potential impacts should be evaluated such as endangered species, wetlands, cultural resources, contaminated soils, visual impacts, streams and lakes.

  • The financial issues and economic feasibility must be evaluated. If a source is too expensive to construct based on its ultimate production, then it may be ruled out as an option.

Identify the Preferred Plan: After extensive evaluation of all options and impacts, the preferred alternative should be selected. The selection should be based on which option was the most cost effective, had the least amount of environmental impact, was most widely accepted by the public, and was financially feasible to construct. The selection team for the preferred alternative should be made up of representatives from all interest groups. These may include staff from the community's utility and administrative departments, elected officials, regulators, the public and/or public interest groups, and environmental groups. All potential stakeholders should participate in the decision process to facilitate acceptance and a smooth transition through the plan. An effective way to include the stakeholders is to develop a committee with representatives from each group which will participate from start to finish in the planning process. The committee should meet regularly reviewing information at each scheduled milestone so they are well informed when the selection of the preferred alternative is to be completed.

Once the plan is complete and the preferred alternative selected, the rural community will be tasked with implementing the plan. A capital improvements program, which is generally phased, should be part of the plan. It may take from 10 to 15 years to get the plan funded, studied, designed and constructed. The plan will be instrumental in applying for and acquiring funding for the project(s).

Tena Campbell can be reached at (801) 495-2224 or This article was brought to you by the APWA Small Cities/Rural Communities Forum. For more information e-mail