Keep investing in rural communities
Newly incorporated in 2006, the City of LaPine has been working for the past decade to build the systems and services that residents of other Oregon cities take for granted. Now, this small community is looking to the future by connecting 300 existing lots to a safe municipal drinking water and sewer system to provide families with clean water and prevent pollution from impacting the health of residents and rivers downstream.
But for a small town, it can be challenging to build whole new systems or keep pace with current rules and best practices.
Reports this year by the Natural Resources Defense Council and USA Today showed that drinking water providers in small towns are strapped for staff and funding to test water quality regularly or update water systems, leaving millions of families in the dark about what is in their water.
About 97 percent of the country’s 157,000 water systems serve 10,000 or fewer people, and the smallest, serving 500 or fewer people, accounted for 70 percent of drinking water violations in 2015.
Oregon is no exception.
Communities across the state face the challenge of aging or inadequate infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and meet the needs of growing communities. In rural Oregon, many towns don’t have the population density to generate needed money for improvements, and many lack the cash flow from local taxes to qualify for affordable private loans that are available to larger cities.
This can lead to deferred repairs that turn into crises.
There are federal programs that offer vital and affordable options for rural Oregonians to access and maintain clean water resources – but they are at risk.
While we wait in limbo for a federal budget from Congress, programs like USDA’s Rural Development Water & Waste Disposal Loan and Grants are facing steep cuts – as much as 20 percent in recent proposals.
A seemingly small program, this fund is one of few available to help very small, financially distressed rural communities improve their water facilities. Since 2009, the program has benefited 19.5 million people in rural areas across the country and built 5,825 water and wastewater projects.
Without the long-term, low-interest loans and grants offered by the USDA Rural Development Program, the City of LaPine would not have been able to make this critical step toward its goals for the community. Like many rural towns, LaPine’s small population (1,815) limits its ability to generate money for improvements, and increased water and sewer rates would have had a disproportionate impact on residents whose median household income is $33,566. Now the city will be better able to attract jobs and businesses while protecting clean water.
Reliable water and wastewater systems can save tax dollars, improve the natural environment, protect human health, and help manufacturers and businesses to locate or expand. These investments help rural communities achieve economic and financial stability across the state.
USDA Rural Development funds are a good investment for America, and Congress should keep its promise to rural communities that need clean water for the health of their residents and their economies.
Learn more about USDA Rural Development funds and water projects in Oregon that are making a different for small communities, including a specially designed multilevel wetlands complex in Prineville that doubles as a municipal wastewater treatment facility and a new and more landslide-proof drinking water system to keep the water flowing to the community of Seal Rock in the event of a natural disaster on the Oregon Coast.