By Michael Downes
Nothing is as precious as a commodity that you can’t get. And water tops that list.
For the last century, most Americans have taken for granted running water at their homes and businesses. In Mississippi, much of that water flows through infrastructure installed, owned and maintained by independent rural water districts and small municipal systems — many of which date back more than 100 years.
Those systems deliver clean, reliable drinking water to their small communities which are frequently limited in size by terrain and geography, according to Bill Rutledge, the new president of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, who is also a damage prevention coordinator for rural water and public works with MS811.
But when that water stops flowing due to damage from excavation, everybody notices — and quick.
“One of the biggest problems throughout the state in any rural water system is people who are digging don’t respect water as they do with electric, gas or cable,” Bill said. “They take the attitude that ‘it’s only water.’”
While a utility strike to water may not be as immediately hazardous to excavators as a high pressure natural gas line or high voltage electricity line, the impact to the community is felt immediately and seriously.
“Water is the only utility that you’ve got to have to survive,” Bill said.
He knows how important water is to small communities — he’s been in the water business since 1971 and even managed a rural water system in the past. Unexpected damage and leaks can cause major headaches to rural water systems, many of which are maintained by just one person, or perhaps several members of the same family.
“Not many people know how many Christmas dinners you have to leave to fix a leak. And birthday parties. And watching your kid play ball — because your first obligation is to take care of those customers,” he said.
But preventing damage to rural water lines is a real challenge for several reasons. The first is sheer numbers. There are more than 1000 rural water districts throughout the state of Mississippi — more than any other state — and an additional 300 or so small municipal systems that aren’t counted in that number.
“Rural development groups would get together and form an association based on state regulations — there might be just 20 houses to start with,” Bill said of the genesis of many of these systems decades ago. “They would borrow money for a well and tank, and as they grew, it would expand the system with more wells, more tanks.”
That piecemeal expansion led to some of today’s challenges in rural water. As these systems grew, most of the lines weren’t mapped. There wasn’t much need to keep track of the lines back then — rural development, new utility installations and other disruptions were rare. And the water district manager knew the system like the back of his hand. He likely installed most of the lines himself and knew where each valve and pipe was.
But through attrition, much of that knowledge has been lost. And today, rural Mississippi is booming with the installation of cable and fiber optic communications lines along crowded rights-of-way. A contractor installing new utilities just a few miles along a highway could run through several different water districts.
“We do our best to notify everybody whether they’re a member of the MS811 system or not, but it still is hard on the contractors,” Bill said. “A lot of these systems might not know what side of the road the line is on. Many of the long-time managers had it in their heads, not on maps. So when they died, nobody knew where the lines were. And back in those days nobody was going to bury a locating wire in the ditch.”
Most of the rural water districts in the state are part of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, and several are members of MS811. Membership in both groups is important, because as communities grow and more utilities come in, having the support of an industry association can help with damage prevention.
The Rural Water Association provides “leadership, training programs, technical assistance and services to meet the needs of all our state’s utility members,” according to their website. While there are fees associated with membership in that body, the vast majority of rural water districts do participate. Bill estimated more than 800 of the approximately 1000 rural providers do participate.
Mississippi 811 also conducts outreach to rural water providers, predominantly through regional damage prevention councils. The councils provide a forum for member organizations in the utility, excavation and construction industries, along with other stakeholders to come together and work through issues and propose solutions to keep Mississippians safe and maintain reliable utilities throughout the state. There isn’t an upfront or annual cost for a rural water provider to become a member of MS811, according to Bill, but there are nominal fees for each locate ticket generated in that district.
“Some of the biggest numbers of non-members to MS811 are rural water districts,” Bill said. “A lot of the board members don’t understand the liability they’re holding — state law requires membership.”
Bill said the reason for water providers to maintain membership in the 811 system is they are the central clearinghouse for all of the data in the state. So, if someone digs, MS811 knows who to call to save the water provider downtime.
“You have a number of systems being operated by one person, or one company handling 12-15 water systems. Each one of those systems needs to be a member,’ he said. I’ve made a promise, as the president representing needs of water association, to get each and every district on board,” he said.
“It’s not the Hatfields and McCoys anymore. We are all working together to provide utilities to the customer,” Bill added.
For most small water systems, the cost of a membership to MS811 is quite low, considering the benefits.
Ultimately, the more cooperation and dialogue that takes place among stakeholders, the better the chances costly and inconvenient damage can be prevented.
Between the Rural Water Association and MS811, rural water providers across the state have a plethora of resources available to them to help prevent damage, and keep the water flowing for the next generation.