The lack of adequate water and waste disposal systems is a major infrastructure need of rural America and it is directly link to another pressing infrastructure need – substandard housing.
Most violations of federal drinking water standards are made by small communities with limited resources to dedicate to compliance. Small and rural drinking water systems constitute nearly 85 percent of the 53,000 community water systems in America. The 2013 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Drinking Needs Assessment indicated a national need of $64.5 billion for small community water systems. This represents 17.4 percent of total national need. The lack of adequate water and waste water systems has a direct impact on the quality of housing. The American Community Survey found that almost 630,000 occupied households in the country lack complete plumbing facilities – meaning they do not have one of the following: a toilet, tub, shower or running water.
President Trump proposed to triple funding for EPA’s Safe Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs), which would make $6 billion available. However while approximately 96 percent of all health-based violations occur in systems serving a population of less than 10,000, less than a third of the SRF outlays are directed at these same small systems. Thus, this proposal would not meet the needs of America’s small towns.
The National Rural Housing Coalition has recommended that 20 percent of the new proposed level of funding for EPA’s SRFs be transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for use in its water and waste disposal loan and grant program and Sections 504 and 533 repair programs. USDA’s Water and Sewer loan and grant financing program is a key component of economic development in rural America. The agency boasts a portfolio of more than 18,000 active water/sewer loans, more than 19 million rural residents served, and a delinquency rate of just 0.18 percent. USDA is better equipped to address rural community facilities needs than state SRFs.
With the USDA Section 504 Loan and Grant program and the Section 533 Housing Preservation Grant program, rural communities have been able to address substandard housing needs that stem from a lack of adequate plumbing. These programs can provide critical assistance to shore up this infrastructure. For example, with an expanded HPG grant of $400,000 and $370,000 in leveraged funds, Self-Help Enterprises in California provided basic health and safety improvements and drill on-site water wells for 23 families in the drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley.
The bottom line is that the Administration and Congress should take a holistic approach to addressing America’s infrastructure needs, and include funding for housing and water/wastewater systems in any infrastructure package.
This article is the sixth in a blog series of the Campaign for Housing and Community Development Funding that ties housing to infrastructure. To read the other blog posts, please click here.
 Defined as serving 3,300 and fewer persons.