Rural Water Supply and Sewer Systems: Background Information
Rural Water Supply and Sewer Systems:
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act impose requirements
regarding drinking water quality and wastewater treatment in rural areas.
Approximately 27% of the U.S. population lives in areas defined by the Census Bureau
as rural. Many rural communities need to complete water and waste disposal projects
to improve the public health and environmental conditions of their citizens. Funding
needs are high (at least $50 billion, according to EPA surveys). Several federal
programs assist rural communities in meeting these requirements. In dollar terms, the
largest are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, but they do not focus
solely on rural areas. The Department of Agriculture’s grant and loan programs support
significant financial activity and are directed solely at rural areas. Meeting infrastructure
funding needs of rural areas efficiently and effectively is likely to remain an issue of
considerable congressional interest.
The public health and environmental requirements of two federal laws are primarily
driving projects in rural, as well as non-rural, areas for drinking water and wastewater
treatment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers both laws.
For the quality of drinking water supply, requirements of the Safe Drinking Water
Act (SDWA) apply to public water supply systems, whether government-owned or
privately owned. Under this law, EPA regulates the quality of drinking water provided
by community water supply systems, which are defined as those having at least 15 service
connections. Community water supply systems serve approximately 282 million persons;
20 million persons also get their drinking water from non-community systems (such as
wells that serve individual homes, schools, or factories), which are not subject to the act.
Regulated water systems provide drinking water to 90% of Americans. The vast
majority of systems are small and privately owned, although most people are customers
of large, publicly owned systems. The smallest water systems (serving fewer than 3,300
persons, many serving small clusters of homes) account for 85% of all systems and a
similar percentage of systems in significant noncompliance with drinking water
regulations. Most very small systems have no credit history and have never raised capital
in financial markets. Small to medium systems (serving 3,301 to 50,000 persons) are
institutionally more capable than smaller systems, yet they also face financing challenges.
The smallest of these have limited access to financial markets and creditworthiness more
sensitive to local economic conditions than larger systems.
Community water supply systems currently are subject to a number of drinking water
regulations issued by EPA under the SDWA. Federal regulations limiting levels of
contaminants in treated water are implemented by local water suppliers. These require,
for example, system monitoring, treatment to remove certain contaminants, and reporting.
New regulations are being developed that are likely to impose additional compliance
burdens on these systems within the next few years, and costs of meeting these
requirements are a growing concern to water suppliers and policymakers.
EPA estimates that compliance with the regulations already promulgated will
provide millions of people protection from numerous industrial chemicals, microbes, and
other contaminants in public water supplies. However, to comply, many cities and towns
must invest in capital equipment, operation and maintenance, and increased staff technical
capacity. Recent regulations with particularly costly implications for small towns include
water filtration, lead control, arsenic control, and inorganic and organic contaminant
In 2005, EPA reported that small community water systems (serving up to 3,300
persons) have funding needs of $34.2 billion (13% of the total national need) to provide
safe drinking water through the year 2022. More than 80% of all systems with reported
funding needs are small communities, EPA said.
For wastewater treatment, requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA) apply to
all communities that discharge municipal sewage waste into the nation’s waters. About
74% of wastewater treatment and collection facilities serve small communities (defined
as those with a population of 10,000 or less), yet those facilities only serve 12% of the
U.S. population. Under the CWA, all municipalities were to achieve secondary treatment
of municipal sewage (equivalent to removing approximately 85% of wastes from the
municipal wastestream), or more stringent, where that is required to meet local water
quality standards, by July 1, 1988. Unlike the Safe Drinking Water Act, regulatory
requirements under the CWA have been fixed for some time. The issue for many cities
is continuing efforts to finance improvements that have been known for several years.
When the CWA’s 1988 deadline arrived, EPA estimated that 87% of all cities
achieved compliance, including 86% of rural systems. However, of the 2,097 cities that
did not achieve compliance and were subject to EPA enforcement and/or penalties, 80%
serve fewer than10,000 persons.
EPA reported in 2008 that cities throughout the country (of all sizes) would require
nearly $203 billion for wastewater facilities to meet water quality standards. EPA
estimated that funding needs for small communities’ projects (populations less than
10,000) were $17 billion. Facilities in the smallest communities (fewer than 1,000
persons) represent 23% of small community facility needs. Small communities reported
greater needs for new sewers and treatment plant upgrades to secondary treatment than
for other types of facilities. As with meeting drinking water needs, EPA has estimated
that, because small systems lack economies of scale, their customers face a particularly
heavy financial burden. The smallest cities are likely to experience the largest overall
percentage increases in user charges and fees as a result, EPA has said.
Federal Assistance Programs
The federal government administers a number of programs that assist rural
communities in developing water and waste disposal systems. The most prominent are
programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); the Appalachian
Regional Commission (ARC); the Economic Development Administration (EDA); EPA;
and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (For more information, see CRS Report
RL30478, Federally Supported Water Supply and Wastewater Treatment Programs.)
HUD administers assistance primarily under the Community Development Block
Grant (CDBG) program, in Title I of the Housing and Community Development Act of
1974, as amended. FY2008 appropriations were $3.6 billion. CDBG funds are used by
localities for a broad range of activities intended to result in decent housing in a suitable
living environment. Water and waste disposal needs compete with many other public
activities for this assistance and are estimated to account for 10% to 20% of CDBG
obligations. Program policy requires that at least 70% of funds must benefit
low/moderate-income persons. According to data from HUD, in recent years, water and
sewer improvement projects have accounted for 9%-10% of all CDBG funds nationally.
Thirty percent of CDBG funds ($1.1 billion in FY2008) are allocated by formula to the
states for distribution to small communities and may be available for rural community
projects. The larger portion of total CDBG funds, 70%, is allocated by formula to
metropolitan areas and cities with populations of 50,000 or more and statutorily defined
urban counties and thus does not assist rural areas directly.
The ARC assists with programs and projects to provide basic facilities essential to
economic growth in the Appalachian regions of 13 states. Investments are concentrated
in areas with significant potential for future growth as well as in areas that suffer the
greatest distress. States recommend projects for assistance. In FY2008, the ARC was
funded at a level of $73 million, budgeted primarily for area development assistance,
covering a range of community-based projects including basic infrastructure, business,
and human development. Historically, environmental projects have received about 5%
of these ARC economic and human development funds.
EDA provides project grants for construction of public facilities, including water and
sewer systems, to alleviate unemployment and underemployment in economically
distressed areas. Development grants provide for infrastructure projects that foster
industries and commercial businesses that provide long-term employment and are part of
approved overall economic development programs in areas of lagging economic growth.
Economic development grants can be used for a wide range of purposes and frequently
have a sewer or water supply element. In FY2008, EDA’s public works grants were
funded at $146 million.
In historic terms, the largest federal program for wastewater treatment assistance is
administered by EPA under the Clean Water Act. Since 1973 Congress has appropriated
$78 billion in assistance under this act. Total FY2008 funding was $689 million. Funds
are distributed to states under a statutory allocation formula and are used to assist
qualified projects on a priority list that is determined by individual states. Prior to 1989,
states used their allotments to make grants to cities and other localities. Now, however,
federal funds are used to capitalize state loan programs (State Revolving Funds, or SRFs),
and project loans are made according to criteria in the CWA. Over the long term, the loan
programs are intended to be sustained through repayment of loans to states, thus creating
a continuing source of assistance for other communities. Rural and non-rural cities
compete for funding; rural areas have no special priority, nor are states required to reserve
any specific percentage for projects in rural areas.
Some small communities and states with large rural populations have had problems
with the CWA loan program. Many small towns did not participate in the previous grants
program and are more likely to require major projects to achieve compliance with the law.
Yet many have limited financial, technical, and legal resources and have encountered
difficulties in qualifying for and repaying loans. They often lack an industrial tax base or
opportunities for economies of scale and thus face the prospect of very high per capita
user fees to repay a loan for the full cost of sewage treatment projects. Still, small
communities have been participating in the clean water SRF program: an estimated 23%
of the $58 billion in SRF assistance since 1989 (representing 63% of all assistance) has
gone to communities with less than 10,000 population.
In 1996, Congress enacted Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) amendments which
authorize federal capitalization of state loan programs to help public water systems
finance improvements needed to comply with federal drinking water regulations (P.L.
104-182). This new drinking water SRF program (DWSRF) is similar in structure to the
CWA SRF program. Elements that differ under the DWSRF include authority for states
to make both loans and grants, to assist both privately and publicly owned community
water systems, and to provide loan subsidies to economically disadvantaged communities.
To give states flexibility in meeting infrastructure needs, the law allows a governor to
transfer as much as 33% of the annual DWSRF allotment to the CWA SRF, or an
equivalent amount from the CWA SRF to the DWSRF. For FY2008, Congress
appropriated $829 million for SDWA SRF assistance (P.L. 110-5). (For information, see
CRS Report RS22037, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund: Program Overview and
Issues, by Mary Tiemann.) According to EPA, 37% of the $11.6 billion in assistance
since 1996 (representing 72% of all assistance agreements) has gone to systems serving
fewer than 10,000 persons.
USDA Water and Waste Disposal Programs
Grants and loans (direct and guaranteed) for water and wastewater projects are
available through rural development programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA). Funds are limited to communities with population of 10,000 or less.
Communities must be denied credit through normal commercial channels to be eligible
for assistance. USDA prefers making loans; grants are made only when necessary to
reduce average annual user charges to a reasonable level. The split between loans and
grants is about 72-28; the ratio of water to sewer projects has been about a 60-40 split in
recent years. USDA also makes grants to nonprofit organizations to provide technical
assistance and training to assist rural communities with their water, wastewater, and solid
Prior to enactment of the 1996 farm bill (the Federal Agriculture Improvement and
Reform Act of 1996, P.L. 104-127), these USDA grants and loans, as well as other USDA
rural development assistance to businesses, industries, and communities, were authorized
as separate programs. In P.L. 104-127, Congress endorsed an Administration proposal
to consolidate 14 existing rural development grant and loan programs into three categories
for better coordination and greater local involvement. The program is called the Rural
Community Advancement Program (RCAP). The three components are the Rural
Utilities Service (RUS, providing assistance for water and wastewater disposal, solid
waste management, and emergency community water programs), Rural Community
Facilities, and Rural Business and Cooperative Development.
Under RCAP, USDA state offices work with state and local governments, Indian
tribes, and private and community organizations to prepare a strategic plan for delivering
RCAP assistance to each state. The key concept in RCAP is to involve state and local
stakeholders in strategic planning, so that federal assistance will address local priorities
The 1996 farm bill did not alter the basic features or statutory requirements of the
water and waste disposal grant and loan programs, which are administered through a
network of state and local offices. USDA headquarters allocates program funds to the
Rural Economic and Community Development state offices through an allocation formula
based on rural population, poverty, and unemployment. District RECD offices actually
administer the programs. Since 2001 USDA has provided more than $9.1 billion to more
than 7,400 rural water and wastewater systems, benefitting more than 6.3 million people.
Subsequent farm bills in 2002 (P.L. 107-171) and 2008 (P.L. 110-246) have not
significantly modified USDA’s rural water and waste disposal assistance programs. The
Water and Waste Disposal Grants
Grants for the development costs of water supply and waste disposal projects in rural
areas are authorized under the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act. An
eligible project must serve a rural area which is not likely to decline in population below
that for which the project was designed, and it must be designed and constructed so that
adequate capacity will or can be made available to serve the reasonably foreseeable
growth needs of the area.
Grants may not exceed 75% of the development cost of a project and should only be
used to reduce user costs to a reasonable level. Grants are only made after a
determination of the maximum amount of loan that a community can afford and still have
reasonable user rates. Grants, which typically provide 35-45% of project costs, may be
used to supplement other funds borrowed or furnished by applicants for project costs and
may be combined with loans when the applicant is able to repay part, but not all, of the
project costs. Eligible applicants may include municipalities, authorities, districts, certain
Indian tribes, and similar organizations. Priority is given to projects serving populations
of less than 5,500.
Water and Waste Disposal Loans
The Rural Development Act of 1972 authorized the Rural Development Insurance
Fund under the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act. Among other activities,
this fund is used for loans to develop storage, treatment, purification, or distribution of
water or collection, treatment, or disposal of waste in low-income rural areas.
Loans are made to public bodies, not-for-profit organizations, Indian tribes on federal
and state reservations, and other federally recognized tribes for projects needed to meet
health or sanitary standards, including clean water standards and SDWA requirements.
Loans are repayable in not more than 40 years or the useful life of the facility, whichever
is less. USDA makes either direct loans to applicants or guarantees up to 90% of loans
made by third party lenders. Borrowers are required to refinance (graduate) to other credit
when they can obtain the needed funds from commercial sources at reasonable rates and
Loan interest rates are based on the community’s economic and health environment
and are designated poverty, market, or intermediate. Poverty interest rate loans are made
in areas where the median household income (MHI) falls below the higher of 80% of the
statewide nonurban MHI, or the poverty level, and the project is needed to meet health or
sanitary standards; by law, this rate is set at 60% of the market rate. The market rate is
adjusted quarterly and is set using the average of a specified 11-bond index. It applies to
loans to applicants where the MHI of the service area exceeds the statewide nonurban
MHI. The intermediate rate applies to loans that do not meet the criteria for the poverty
rate and which do not have to pay the market rate; by law, this rate is set at 80% of the
market rate. (For current interest rates, see [http://www.usda.gov/rus/water/int-rate.htm].)
Beginning with USDA’s FY1996 appropriation, Congress consolidated the water and
waste disposal grant and loan appropriations in a single Rural Utilities Assistance
Program, consistent with the approach taken in the 1996 farm bill to consolidate delivery
of rural development assistance. In FY2008, appropriations provided $534.2 million for
the core water and waste disposal grant and loan program. USDA estimated that,
counting both appropriations and repaid loan monies still available, those funds would
support $1.6 billion in program activity.
In dollar terms, the largest federal programs that solely assist water and waste
disposal needs are administered by EPA. FY2008 appropriations for the clean water and
safe drinking water SRF programs total $1.5 billion. They do not focus solely on rural
areas, however. USDA’s grant and loan programs also support significant financial
activity and are directed entirely at rural areas. Still, funding needs in rural areas are high
(at least $50 billion, according to EPA surveys), and there is heavy demand for funds.
At the end of FY2007, USDA reported a $2.4 billion backlog of requests for 928 water
and wastewater projects. Meeting the infrastructure funding needs of rural areas
efficiently and effectively is likely to remain an issue of considerable congressional