Our daily lives depend on drinking water and the proper disposal of sewage. From homes and factories to local parks and power utilities, cities either flourish with it or flounder without it. That’s the very reason wastewater treatment plants and drinking water infrastructure are among a community’s most important — yet expensive — assets.

But these days, we face significant municipal water and wastewater infrastructure updates and stricter regulations requiring owners to meet new compliance standards. That’s a hefty feat for any municipality, so they’re looking to gain efficiencies — and minimize costs — where they can. With a renewed focus on improving productivity from new leadership at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Missouri is just one of many states searching for better solutions. And many are finding relief in regionalization.

What Is Regionalization?

Two main types of regionalization exist, starting with a larger city that provides operational and administrative tasks for a smaller city, including everything from billing and planning to equipment maintenance and day-to-day operations. But in a truer sense of the word, it’s when cities and/or counties agree to share in the responsibility of providing wastewater treatment services to residents and businesses. How? By physically connecting sewage collection systems (or consolidating two or more) and discharging to a centrally located wastewater treatment facility.

Driven by drinking water provisions, county public water supply districts are doing the same by partnering with cities to bring drinking water service to residents within multiple districts. Utilities, such as the Clarence Wholesale Water Commission and the Missouri Public Utility Alliance and its joint electric commissioners, also are finding ways to provide service in a more collaborative and cooperative way.

How Does It Work?

Though the concept has been around for years, regionalization is piquing interest because of its potential to cut costs. When a group of cities and/or counties come together to consolidate services, capital and operational costs are reduced for all parties. Mainly, it provides increased economies of scale — cost savings associated with building or operating one larger facility for more advanced water and wastewater treatment over several smaller ones — which trickles down to reduced costs for ratepayers. When numerous cities rally together, they can better plan and budget, which lessens the impact of changing regulations.

In northwest Arkansas, our team provided engineering services for the planning and design of a new regional wastewater conveyance system and treatment plant for the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority (NACA), which serves 10 growing communities and covers nearly 200 square miles. This comprehensive plan included recommendations to extend wastewater conveyance facilities and metering options to NACA’s member cities, as well as a construction plan for a proposed capacity of 80 million gallons per day.

When significant wastewater treatment plant improvements like this are necessary, regulatory agencies offer a state revolving fund loan program to help finance regionalization construction projects. For a smaller city that cannot afford necessary upgrades, it can find a reprieve in partnering with a larger wastewater system that has greater technical, managerial and financial resources. This consolidated effort not only lowers costs for everyone — customers and utilities — but also enables a quicker response time during an emergency.

How Can We Make This Happen?

Begin with a comprehensive evaluation to see if regionalization is the right fit for your community, as geography (too much distance to make a physical connection) and up-front capital costs will factor into the decision-making process. If it’s a go, start the conversation with surrounding cities and counties. Because, like anything else, change takes time. Even the cities that have already adopted the concept are finding ways to do it better.

This regional concept has a lot of regional benefit. If you have a significant wastewater treatment facility, economic development opportunities abound, whereas a smaller plant with only a certain amount of flow lacks the same potential. An expandable treatment plant, with capacity to spare, can really go somewhere.

 

For a recent success story, read our project profile about how Lincoln County, Missouri, followed MDNR’s lead by adopting regionalization. The result? Consolidating efforts improved efficiency of the region’s wastewater treatment service.

Download the Project Profile

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As the former manager of environmental services with the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, Phil delivered technical and regulatory guidance to 110 municipal water and wastewater utilities. His experience includes monitoring, coordinating, and negotiating regulatory actions between cities and the Department of Natural Resources and serving as an advocate for municipal utility organizations on upcoming regulatory changes.