USA overview

The USA is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but it is also characterised by large and growing disparities: the Gini coefficient is 45, up from 35 in the 1970s, and higher than all other industrialised nations. In total, not including the U.S. territories, roughly 1.8 million people lack access to improved water supply.

This number translates into 1.15 million urban and 600,500 rural residents. Those who are the least likely to have adequate services are the poor, elderly, and people living in rural communities. In the presence of relatively professional providers and nearly universal coverage, the role of state and national government is limited to regulation (with a focus on private operators), control, and certain aspects of financing; local government is very often the system owner.

Administrative set up

The governance structure is federalist, and largely decentralised, with 50 individual states having autonomy on most matters. These are further sub-divided into 3,143 counties.

Main sector institutions

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides the drinking water quality (public health) regulatory framework under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Under the federal system, institutional frameworks are largely set at state or sub-state level.
  • There are state regulatory agencies, known as ‘primacy agencies’, responsible for ensuring water is delivered and which regulate and monitor compliance with health and environmental regula­tions and convene all financing agencies at the state level to determine the needs within the water sector. Along with the water system financing office of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), these primacy agencies have offices at county or parish level in most states. EPA, USDA and the state primacy agencies work closely with not-for-profit technical assistance provider organisations to ensure that rural residents have potable water services.
  • The management of rural water supply is done through a multiplicity of organisational types that have the responsibility for planning, implementation and administration, including municipal or state rural utilities, tribal or federal water utilities, private companies and CBOs.
  • Depending on the ownership type, the day-to-day operations of running a rural water system may be contracted out to rural water operators who are either employees of the community, the district, a private contracting company, or a private water entity.

Service Delivery Models

There are four principal SDMs:

  1. The community model: serves a community (town, village, or hamlet) with multiple types including public municipal utilities, not-for-profit community models and regional water systems.
  2. The PPP model: in rural areas the most common choice is not-for-profit utilities (CBOs which are recognised as service providers), with the option to have a private company as the operator.
  3. Fully private options: these include CBM where the provider always owns the assets.
  4. Household self-supply: this continues to be a major component of rural water supply, generally through wells constructed by home owners.

Key issues

High quality service provision is enabled by high levels of subsidy and loan mechanisms (for which service providers may access different and changing channels/sources). These enable capital maintenance and a strong network of professional support, even to small rural operators. Post-construction support, technical advice and capacity building are provided by two principal organisations – the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), which organises the circuit rider program of technicians who provide post-construction support to rural operators. Both are “bottom-up” organisations providing support to members, but are equally well linked into government (funding) systems both at federal and state level.

The priority lies with improving performance of operators (e.g. through capacity development and regulation) and water quality. At the same time the rural water sector faces major challenges with an expensive and aging physical asset portfolio, and the risk of slippage, as many systems come to the end of their life span; current investment levels are insufficient to meet these replacement needs. Financing mechanisms come from a combination of local, state, regional, and national funding sources, and many rural populations rely on political leverage to access new funds for rehabilitation and replacement.