The Importance of Effective Knowledge Dissemination in the Water Sector


By Andy Kricun

Economically distressed communities face many challenges, especially — and most obviously — the challenges of lack of funding and lack of resources. In addition, their funding and resource deficits can also lead to an additional challenge – being unable to share in the benefits of being networked within the water sector community.

Networked utilities, which belong to national and statewide associations and attend their conferences, reap the significant benefit of knowledge sharing with their colleagues. Public sector water utilities are more than happy to share their successes and best practices. And, they are also willing to share their failures as well, which can also be helpful and instructive. As a result, the networked utilities have ample opportunities to learn from the best practices of the best-in-class utilities, and replicate or adapt them to their own operations. In addition, they can consult their peers about their own specific challenges, and they are very likely to find a peer who has faced a similar situation before and can offer constructive advice and assistance.

However, economically distressed communities often lack the funding or the resources to join the water sector associations. These non-networked utilities miss out on the advantages and opportunities afforded to the networked utilities described above. As a result, and in addition to the economic and resource challenges that they also face, they also must solve many of their operational challenges in a knowledge vacuum. This is a tremendous problem for the water sector but, since opportunity is the flip side of challenge, this also represents a tremendous opportunity for meaningful improvement for the water utilities and communities that need help the most.

One way to provide assistance through sharing of knowledge and resources is through a peer-to-peer relationship in which a more resourced utility provides help to a less resourced, economically distressed utility or community. The more resourced utility usually cannot provide funding from one jurisdiction to another, but it can share knowledge and resources which can make a significant difference. Examples of such help can include:

  • Providing technical advice with operations and maintenance problems.
  • Providing information about new innovations and opportunities.
  • Providing copies of sample procurement documents, since developing procurement documents can be a significant challenge for less resourced communities.
  • Providing assistance with grant applications.
  • Pooling resources to buy in bulk so that the less resourced community not only gets procurement assistance but also the benefit of a lower price.

My former utility, the Camden County (N.J.) Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) took things a step further in its peer-to-peer assistance to its host community, Camden City, an economically distressed community with a median household income of approximately $26,000. In addition to assisting the City of Camden in applying for State Revolving Fund (SRF) funding for upgrades to its combined sewer system, the CCMUA also implemented SRF-funded projects for the city since it not only lacked the resources to apply for the funding but also lacked the resources to implement and oversee the badly needed sewer improvement projects. The CCMUA was fully reimbursed for all costs incurred.

It is very important to note that, in each of the examples described above, the helping peer utility only spends its spare time and resources; none of its ratepayer funds go to the recipient peer utility. In this way, the non-networked utility gains access to knowledge and resources that it would not have otherwise, at no net cost to the helping utility. More importantly, the residents who live in the underserved community get better service at a lower cost than they would have experienced otherwise. Water equity is the driving force behind peer-to-peer assistance — the notion that every person, regardless of who they are or where they live, is entitled to safe drinking water and clean waterways. Peer-to-peer assistance is an effective way to reduce the service gap.

“…finding alternative ways to share knowledge and resources, such as peer-to-peer assistance, widespread dissemination of compendiums and webinars, etc., can result in significant benefit to non-networked utilities and improve the quality of service – and the quality of life — for the communities they serve.”

This idea can be extended further via implementation of a peer-to-peer network. In New Jersey, the New Jersey Association of Environmental Authorities (NJAEA) has identified 15 resourced water utilities who are willing to help each other, and importantly, underserved communities and utilities in New Jersey with their water and wastewater challenges. In New Mexico, the New Mexico Department of the Environment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and my current non-profit organization, Moonshot Missions, are all working together to provide knowledge and resources to underserved communities in New Mexico, helping them with drinking water and wastewater challenges. In Maryland, Moonshot is partnering with the Maryland Department of the Environment in a similar endeavor to assist underserved communities with water and wastewater challenges.

In addition to direct peer-to-peer assistance, as described above, dissemination of best utility practices through creation of compendiums of case studies is another effective way to bring information to non-networked utilities. These compendiums can serve as a type of cookbook of recipes for best practices that can give non-networked utilities the opportunity to replicate or adapt the practices that could be a fit for their needs and capacity. Webinars on best practices released by the U.S EPA and the national and state water associations, like WEF, AWWA, NACWA, AMWA, the US Water Alliance, etc., also serve a similar purpose of more broadly disseminating information to non-networked utilities and underserved communities that they would be unlikely to receive otherwise.

In conclusion, being non-networked and generally disconnected from the virtuous cycle of knowledge sharing among the resourced utilities within the water sector adds yet another impediment to the challenges that underserved communities must deal with. However, reversing that cycle and finding alternative ways to share knowledge and resources, such as peer-to-peer assistance, widespread dissemination of compendiums and webinars, etc., can result in significant benefit to non-networked utilities and improve the quality of service – and the quality of life — for the communities they serve. Public water and wastewater utilities have always been happy to share information about their successful practices, and this readily available information can be immensely important and impactful to non-networked utilities…if only it can be transmitted to them in a reliable and systematic way. Therefore, improving the efficacy of disseminating knowledge and best practices to non-networked utilities represents an important opportunity to improve the entire water sector for the good of public health and the environment.

Andy Kricun, P.E., is managing director of Moonshot Missions. He is the former CEO and chief engineer of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority in Camden, New Jersey, and has been active throughout his career in a wide range of national and local water organizations. Read more about Kricun’s career in our December 2020 profile.

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