Montana rural water customers get a shot of congressional help

by Tom Lutey

In Montana, there are hundreds of water services with only 100 customers and maybe one employee, the kind of guy who probably mows the cemetery and stripes the road when he isn’t fending off cholera.

That one employee is still responsible complying with the same EPA clean water laws as Billings or one of Montana’s other large cities. He gets it done with a lot of outside technical assistance.

“A small system is likely to be one person, and he’s likely to be certified in public water and wastewater. He may haul garbage and mow the lawn and be the sexton,” said John Camden, of Montana Rural Water Systems.
Camden’s group is a nonprofit organization that helps more than 2,200 rural Montana water systems comply with clean water standards. Monday was a big day in Congress for the nonprofit and the communities that rely on its expertise.

House lawmakers committed $15 million a year to fund nonprofits like Montana Rural Water Systems and to give preference to groups that small rural communities find most beneficial.

Expert advice is never cheap, but for rural water systems with only a few customers to split the tab the cost of clean water compliance can be hard to swallow. The cost of infrastructure for compliance can easily run into the millions, particularly in the Eastern part of the state where fluoride and other minerals pose health risks. Water and wastewater expertise would be in the tens of thousands were it not for nonprofits.

The nonprofits are mostly funded through an assortment of federal and state funds. The funding approved by the House on Monday was a significant part of that funding, which was contained in the Grassroots Rural and Small Community Water Systems Assistance Act, which was authored in the Senate, where Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was a sponsor.

“There is nothing more important for the health of a town than having access to clean water,” Tester said. “My bill takes a step in making sure water systems have the resources they need to provide safe drinking water to the families and small businesses in their community.”

Camden said the importance of helping small rural water providers in Montana can’t be overstated. Those utilities are where most communities outside of the state’s big cities get water.

“If you look at populations of 3,300 and larger, there are only 29 systems,” Camden said. “Less than 100, I bet there’s 300 to 500. It only takes 25 people to be a public water supplier, or 15 or more service connections.”