A provision included in Congress's year-end funding package will help ensure that safe and affordable public drinking water is available in small and rural communities.
A federal law passed in 1996 authorized technical assistance for small and rural communities to assist them in complying with rules and regulations promulgated under the "Safe Drinking Water Act." This program aims to ensure that federal regulations do not overwhelm rural water resources.
However, this Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program has often not been a priority resulting in funds to more-populated areas of the country, putting at risk access to safe drinking water for thousands of rural citizens.
A bill introduced by U.S. Representative Gregg Harper (R--Miss.) would reauthorize and modernize the much needed technical assistance and compliance training initiative to ensure that federal regulations do not burden small water districts' resources. Congressional negotiators included a variation of Harper's language into an agreement to fund the government for 2012, which guarantees that these support services remain available.
"This initiative provides smaller communities -- the exact areas intended to be reached by this program -- with the necessary federal resources to comply with clean water laws," said Harper, a second-term lawmaker who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Without these services, safe and clean water for rural Mississippians would be put in jeopardy."
Approximately 1,000 Mississippi communities receive water from rural water associations or small cities. Nationwide, over 93 percent of community water systems serve a population of less than 10,000 residents.
The National Rural Water Association, America's largest community-based water organization, praised the program's continuation.
"Water quality is one of the most pressing public health concerns in rural Mississippi and is essential for long-term economic sustainability," said Kirby Mayfield, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Water Association. "However, due to a lack of economies of scale, it is often more difficult for small towns to comply with federal rules and afford the latest technology."
In addition to being the main source of compliance aid, rural water technical assistance contributes to emergency response efforts, including Hurricane Katrina when hundreds of communities relied on assistance from surrounding state rural water associations.
The conference report for fiscal year 2012 was signed into law by the president on December 23, 2011 and funds the federal government through September 30, 2012, at levels lower than the previous year in an effort to trim government debt.