[Publication] RDOs: Supporting Water Infrastructure and Improving Quality of Life

Every day, regional development organizations (RDOs) are working to improve the lives of residents in communities across the country.  Known locally as councils of governments, regional planning commissions, economic development districts, and other names, RDOs provide various types of support to their member communities in a host of service areas.  Their diverse portfolio may include promoting place-based strategies in the areas of planning, housing, transportation, infrastructure, workforce development, social services, and other sectors.  RDOs are typically governed by a policy board consisting of local elected officials, along with representatives from the business community, educational institutions, the nonprofit sector, and the general public. These public-based entities play an invaluable role in fostering intergovernmental collaboration among officials in all levels of government.

RDOs can open the door to grant and loan funding, provide administrative support, and supply valuable staff support and access to technology.  For rural places in particular, they can play a critical role in towns that may have limited capacity and resources due to part-time or volunteer staff that are tasked with carrying out the local functions of government.

RDOs in Action

Because of their expertise and role as regional conveners, many RDOs serve as important players —though often behind the scenes — in supporting their region’s water systems.  The following snapshots highlight the variety of ways RDOs work with local municipalities and utilities to build, maintain, and upgrade water infrastructure:

Access to Funding:

The most common way RDOs support local water systems is by helping counties and communities access funding through grant writing, administrative assistance, and capacity-building efforts.  RDO staff can pursue funding from a mix of sources and provide guidance and oversight from initial grant preparation through the final project closeout.  In addition to state-specific funding streams, popular fedreal funding sources include the US EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRDF), HUD Community Development Block Grants (HUD-CDBG), USDA Rural Development (USDA RD), EDA Public Works, and grants from federal-state commissions such as the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and Delta Regional Authority (DRA).

For example, the Bluegrass Area Development District was responsible for researching, writing, and administering a funding package to provide Burgin, KY (population 976) with sanitary sewer service for the first time in the city’s history by partnering with a neighboring municipality to pump out waste.  Through a mix of state and federal funding, as well as support from local churches and banks, this project protects public health and creates economic opportunities for this small municipality.

Another way RDOs can generate funding for projects is through fostering partnerships and encouraging collaboration.  A powerful example of this is the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments’ partnership with the Grant County Water Commission to organize funding for a multi-phase project that will provide water to towns in the county through a region-wide water transmission system.  Without this project, the small town of Hurley was set to lose its water access at the end of 2018 per a water sales agreement with the local mining company that had provided water for decades.  This timely effort in a high-need area is a case study in collaboration as over 18 public and private entities are working to piece together a variety of state and federal funding sources to ensure sustained access to water for residents and businesses.

Data Collection and Mapping:

RDOs serve as repositories for data, statistics, and other key information about the regions they serve.  This can include information about demographics, economic development, land use, watersheds, commuter flows, and more.  This knowledge can support towns and cities in making informed decisions about infrastructure planning and pursuing future investments.

RDO staff’s knowledge of Geographic Information System (GIS) tools can provide critical information to communities about their utilities.  For example, North Carolina’s Western Piedmont Council of Governments partnered with the Town of Maiden to identify all of the town’s utilities features, including water, wastewater, stormwater, and electrical mechanisms.  Over 15,000 components were identified over a year, including water meters, lines, hydrants, sewer lines, and stormwater flows.  These were then catalogued using GIS for local staff to access, use, and update in real time from the field.  This up-to-date resource has replaced the dated, hard copy maps that the community had been relying on for years.

RDOs are also embracing new, cutting edge forms of mapping technology, such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).  The Georgia Mountains Regional Commission coordinated a project that involved 22 counties, three cities, and five regional commissions that used LiDAR for flood mapping and acquired data for water, sewer, stormwater, gas, and other infrastructure modeling.  This project, which also utilized oblique imagery and aerial photography for property valuation and other purposes, covered an area that is over 6,400 square miles.

Supporting Regionalization:

Given their broad scope of work and array of partners, RDOs bring a regional focus to addressing water system planning and infrastructure.  With their emphasis on collaboration, RDOs can initiate projects and infrastructure improvements that promote efficiency, keep costs down for consumers, improve water quality, and break down barriers between municipalities in the pursuit of funding opportunities.

The Lowcountry Regional Water System (LRWS) in South Carolina is an example of a regional effort which has led to multiple benefits for local businesses and residents.  The Lowcountry Council of Governments initiated the LRWS after years of working on separate —though similar—grant applications for various communities in its region that had common needs for water systems upgrades but had never worked together.  After nearly ten years of planning, fundraising, conducting viability studies and research, the LRWS was established in 2012 and serves around 7,000 people through consolidated water and sewer systems that have met satisfactory sanitary ratings and remedied issues related to consent orders that had been in place.  This effort has also improved the finances of many of the small systems and their towns because of this efficient and collective approach.

Promoting Broader Economic Development:

Without well-functioning and cost-effective utilities, economic development opportunities and business expansion prospects are severely limited for towns and cities.  Water systems infrastructure and upgrades are therefore often part of larger economic development projects supported by RDOs and their partners.  These can include very localized site-specific projects as well as much larger regional efforts to support an industry cluster.

The Northeast Mississippi Planning and Development District was instrumental in serving as the coordinating agency between Marshall County and the state to fund a project for water, sewer, wastewater, gas, and access road improvements to allow for an international insulation company to expand its operations in the region and meet consumer demands.  Through these improvements, funded by CDBG, state funds, and the company’s own private investments, this project led to the creation of 134 jobs for the community and retained a multi-national company for the region.

On a larger scale, the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) has been a key player in supporting the four Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA) military installations, a major industry cluster for the region.  JBSA was faced with the prospect of limited dependable water sources to serve the bases, something that could potentially hinder its mission and prevent future base expansion and improvements.  AACOG took the lead on a proposal for a Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance grant that involved the city, region, military, and public utility.  Collaboration was crucial on this project as the necessary infrastructure included water lines both on and off the base that must interconnect.  This complicated funding opportunities because different resources were eligible to fund each part of the line.  This project, with the support of AACOG and its partners, will provide a reliable water source to JBSA for years to come and allow the city to live up to its nickname: “Military City USA.”

A Closer Look:  Martin County, KY and Big Sandy Area Development District

The challenges facing one small water infrastructure system in Eastern Kentucky has gained national attention as it pursues critical repairs and upgrades.  The Martin County Water District has struggled with leaks, low pressure, water shut offs, and discolored and smelly water.  This coal region has had over 100 boil notices over a 10-year period and seen highly elevated levels of potential carcinogens in the water supply.  Images of brown, yellow, and blue water have gone viral, as have videos of tense community meetings where residents have demanded solutions from local officials.

The Big Sandy Area Development District (BSADD) is the regional development organization that serves Martin County, as well as four other counties in Eastern Kentucky.  BSADD was a key player in delivering two sources of funding to the county that will address the system’s challenges and help avoid a long-term rate increase that would negatively impact residents in this already distressed region where around one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.

By providing grant writing support, BSADD helped secure funding from both the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (KY DAML).  $1.2 million from ARC will help replace leaking pipes and $3.4 million from KY DAML will lead to water treatment plant improvement, the installation of a secondary water intake, and dam upgrades and a new water line.  BSADD’s Development Associate Denise Thomas has worked closely on these funding efforts and said“We have played a small but important role to address some of these tough issues facing the community.”  Moving forward, BSADD will continue to lend its planning and administrative services to ensure safe drinking water for all residents and continue the maintenance of critical infrastructure.  

Connect with Your RDO to Support Water Infrastructure Projects

As key conveners and connectors in their regions, regional development organizations are well-positioned to support water infrastructure projects that lead to economic development opportunities and overall improved quality of life for residents.  By providing grant writing support, technical assistance, fostering partnerships, and more, RDOs are ready and willing to assist your community in meeting your economic and community development goals.

The National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) is a membership association that, in partnership with the NADO Research Foundation, provides training, research, and advocacy support for RDOs from coast to coast.  To learn more about RDOs and NADO, visit www.nado.org.  If your community is not yet connected with your local RDO or you are unsure which RDO serves where you live, please reach out to NADO Research Foundation Associate Director Brett Schwartz at [email protected].

The NADO Research Foundation is a partner organization in the Smart Management for Small Water Systems project, a collaborative effort between the members of the Environmental Finance Center Network, the NADO Research Foundation, and the Government Finance Officers Association.

The Smart Management for Small Water Systems Project seeks to address major issues facing the nation’s smallest drinking water systems (those serving 10,000 or fewer people). Our team of experts works with water systems across the country, US territories, and the Navajo Nation to address these issues, which range from asset management and rate setting to water loss detection and conservation, through training and technical assistance.

This project is made possible through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The information presented above does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of US EPA or the partnering organizations.

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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.

Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.

Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.

As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.

Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.

Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.

Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.

Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.

Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.

Deputy Executive Director Laurie Thompson has been with NADO for 25 years. Laurie helps keep the NADO and NADO Research Foundation wheels turning through management of the daily operations of the Research Foundation, securing financial resources and overseeing grants management, and helping execute NADO’s Annual Training Conference each year.

Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.

When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.

Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and execution of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.

Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.

Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy. 

Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.

Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.

Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.  

Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for nado.org and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.

An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.

Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of her family’s favorite pastimes.

Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.

When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.

Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.

Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.

Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.

Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.

Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.

A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.

Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.

She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.

In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.

Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.

Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.

Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.

An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.

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