By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
If you ask Doug Anderton about the lapel pin he wears, he’ll explain that it’s the logo of the National Rural Water Association. The pin is in the shape of the letter Q, the tail of which forms a water faucet, symbolizing the organization’s motto, which is: “Quality on tap.”
But the pin is on the small side – lapels are not, you may have noticed, all that roomy – and it’s not as if Anderton wears it every day. So realistically you probably would never have gotten around to asking – or the Sentinel wouldn’t have, anyway – had Anderton not recently been named president of NRWA.
Interviewed in honor of the occasion, Anderton, manager of Dade Water Authority, seized the occasion not just to explain the pin but to expound more generally on his favorite subject: Water.
“People always tell me, you know, ‘I go turn my faucet on, I expect water to be there, I expect it to be safe to drink, and I really don’t think about anything else,’ ” said Anderton, interviewed shortly after his inauguration ceremony in Nashville.
In point of fact, getting clean, safe water from source to glass involves more pipes, more pumps and more engineering than consumers are any more likely to know about than they are the provenance of Anderton’s lapel pin. In big cities, entire municipal departments are devoted to this function. The National Regional Water Association is there to help smaller systems that don’t have that kind of resource.
The NRWA is composed of about 31,000 member systems, said Anderton. “Those water and wastewater systems in the nation go from the little old bitty mom-and-pop trailer parks of 100 customers or 150, that they have to provide their own water to that trailer park, all the way up to about 10,000 customers,” he said.
Dade Water Authority, at about 6,800 customers, is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, said Anderton. The really tiny ones have to accomplish the same results with much less.
“Those folks have to treat the water, chlorinate it, and some of them have no knowledge of that,” said Anderton. “They don’t have a licensed plant operator like I do, or have the background knowledge – so we have circuit riders.”
These circuit riders are the problem-solvers of the NRWA network. If one of the member systems has an issue it can’t cope with solo, it puts in a call to the state branch of the association, which dispatches a rider who routinely travels that state. The rider then works with the system to get its water back up flowing and meeting national safety standards.
Including the circuit riders, NRWA, housed in Duncan, Okla., has about 25 full-time employees. These workers also perform an educational function for the rural systems, in the smaller ones training the operators and in the larger ones training the trainers. “National Rural Water trains over 100,000 people a year on how to have quality water and how to treat it properly,” said Anderton.
Another purpose the organization serves is mutual support in crisis situations. “It’s system helping system,” said Anderton.
He recalled how, during last year’s killer tornados, this came in handy for Dade. “The Southeastern states along the Gulf catch it all the time with the hurricanes, so they really have to be really more prepared than any of the other states,” said Anderton. “Florida Rural Water Association has a stockpile of generators, and they have them stockpiled actually in Georgia to get them out of harm’s way. So when the tornados came, I called the executive director of Florida and I said, ‘We’re out of power, we may be out of power for a week or a week and a half. Do you have any generators that I can get?’ He said, ‘I’ve got four on the trailer now – send a truck down here and get them.’ ”
Finally, NRWA advocates for the rural systems with governmental agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. For small systems, this is not so much a matter of lobbying, said Anderton, as of protecting themselves from that boogeyman of local government, the unfunded mandate.
As an example, he described a lingering regulatory problem with lead solder in private service lines, the pipes that run from meter to sink. “When lead was put into solder, they found out years later that it could have a harmful effect. But after it got so old, it leached out and it no longer had that effect,” said Anderton. “So we have a little window there of the people that are still out there and we have to test every year.”
The lead solder was outlawed in maybe the mid-1980s, said Anderton, and in pipes put in before perhaps 1975, not enough lead remains to cause harm. Here in Dade, the Water Authority has identified customers who fall in that window between, and once a year tests their water for lead.
Never has any of that water tested positive for dangerous lead levels, every year some households drop off the list because of the leaching effect, and in many cases householders, alerted they have the problem, replace the service line themselves. “What usually happens is when you tell them that, they just say, ‘Oh, no, I’ll fix that,’” said Anderton.
But now EPA is thinking of revisiting the lead rule, he said. Although the customer, not the Water Authority, owns the service line and although the builder, not the Water Authority, installed it, EPA may require the Water Authority to replace the pipe. “EPA doesn’t know how to reach out to that individual customer, so they’ll reach out to us,” said Anderton.
In situations like that, said Anderton, though health is the NRWA’s major concern, it might well question the EPA on how much benefit would result from how much expense, and whether it’s fair to make all customers in a system pay for the personal property of one.
In any case, the NRWA coalition allows small systems like Dade’s to have their voices heard by the government entities that affect their day-to-day operations for good or ill. “We have a seat at the table for regulations,” said Anderton.
Anderton, who last year celebrated his 40th anniversary with the Water Authority, has served on all NRWA’s committees and was named president after a term as executive vice president. He will lead the organization for two years.
Anderton said attaining the presidency is a great honor for him personally and added it isn’t a bad thing for Dade County, either. The National Rural Water Authority interacts not just with EPA but also with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farmer’s Home Administration. “It gives me an inside into those people running those organizations,” he said. “It could benefit my county if we put in an application for funds.”