I loved reading through this comment and imagining all of the wonderful things that might come out of it. You're absolutely right - the only way to solve complex problems related to basic needs is the grassroots approach.
I just reached out via linked-in and would love to speak by phone and take advantage of all of your wonderful experience!
Q4. What are the policy implications for this work?
A4. We see several major policy implications for this work. In some cases we have already begun a dialogue with policymakers on these issues.
1. Infrastructure Funding Statutes: Many existing federal funding programs for water/wastewater are limited by law to a small applicant pool made up of tribal governments or utility companies. In some cases, they can only fund traditional water infrastructure, like utility lines, which are not viable in the areas we serve. We believe that these statutes should be rewritten, or have their definitions broadened by the committees who govern them, to include non-profit and community groups and infrastructure alternatives like water trucking.
2. Plumbing Codes: In many jurisdictions, utility codes dictate that a dwelling may not connect to a water line unless it meets certain requirements (ex. code-compliant plumbing and septic service that meets a pressure test). Many homeowners are not capable of paying to upgrade their plumbing, and those upgrades often increase property values, threatening to displace occupants. We want to work with state and local jurisdictions to better understand these codes, find flexibility where appropriate, and create new legal structures to protect and regulate community-based water programs.
3. CDC Model: We see an opportunity to develop new laws to codify the role of community groups acting as water and wastewater providers, protecting their investments and giving them the ability to collect fees for service… akin to existing Community Development Corporations (CDCs) for low-income housing.
Q5. What strategic partnerships may support the sustainability and viability of this project as well as future proposals for scaled impact?
A5. We’ve considered developing a number of new partnerships. Here are several:
1. Experienced Rural Water Utilities: to help us figure out appropriate billing rates, methods of payment collection and exceptions for customers unable to pay.
2. Engineers without Borders / Plumbers without Borders: to develop new engineering and construction methods that meet building and plumbing codes, are locally appropriate, durable and easy to replicate. These groups may also be good volunteer partners.
3. Local Community Rights / Justice Groups (ex. Detroit Water Brigades): to explore how community-based water access models might be deployed in urban areas to serve communities impacted by the > $1 trillion deficit in water/ wastewater infrastructure.
4. Habitat for Humanity: to identify new rural communities in Appalachia and the US / Mexico border region in need of community-based water access solutions.
We're so grateful for this feedback from the BridgeBuilder team and Experts! Here are some direct responses to your questions, and references to the edits we've made in the text above. Thank you!
Q1. The technology seems to be traditional (and not necessarily different than what is used throughout the sector globally). Given the proposal suggests an innovation in community engagement, we would love to see more granular details around this.
A1. Some elements of the technology - like water delivery by truck - are commonplace globally. In fact, The WHO-Unicef Joint Monitoring Project on Water and Sanitation recently changed its guidelines to reclassify water delivery as an "improved water source” in their most recent report (Feb 2017) – largely because the process is now commonplace and its impact better understood. But this still marks the first time that community-led water delivery, in concert with home water systems, has been deployed in the United States, where the norm is to wait for traditional water and wastewater lines to “catch up” with underserved communities. The active participation of the local community made this possible. We’ve gone into more detail on this above in the “Full Description” section under “Community Leadership.”
Q2. The proposal is of course desirable (no doubts on this piece), though the scale at present seems quite small. We would be curious if there are future plans to ripple impact further beyond this individual community, after perhaps the initial grant period.
A2. We feel it's important to note that this is a collaboration between seven communities that encompass different clan groups and even some non-natives. One of the great successes of this project has been to unite a diverse group of people around a common goal. We’ve further explored expansion plans in “Growth Opportunities” above.
Q3. The challenges mentioned in the proposal are mostly related to the organization's financial and structural issues. I greatly appreciate this transparency and hope to see more information around how, despite these challenges, the organization is still confident about viability.
A3. This was a very positive outcome from our work around user experience and stakeholder feedback. We expected to solicit IDEO support for system design and remote sensing technology, but our feedback identified more important structural / financial questions around billing our clients for the water we produce and deliver.
Namely: Is it feasible to institute water billing and use that income to cover operational costs of the system in the long-term? If so, what would that system look like? What technologies might make that possible in this remote place with limited infrastructure? What is a “fair price” for water and who decides? How to we protect those incapable of paying from service disruptions or cut-offs?
These are all questions we’re exploring with the local community, whose leadership and input are invaluable. The final answers to those questions, and the mechanisms we implement, will only be viable if designed and implemented by our clients and their neighbors.
In the end, we’re confident that the Navajo Water Project is viable no matter our decision around billing, because the program is small enough to be externally funded through the support of local non-profit partners, grant programs and public donations. Even if billing can only subsidize or supplement total operations costs, that would be a big win.