Enabling rural water utilities to create, transfer information, and use digital service area boundaries: Year 2 final report

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WRRI Project;22-09-W

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Enabling Rural Water Utilities to Create, Transfer Information, and Use Digital Service Area Boundaries is a project that aims to increase equity by lowering the digital divide for small utilities by providing free, open-source tools that support regional and statewide planning. The project’s objectives are to (1) enable water and wastewater utilities to create and maintain digital service area boundaries through the development of an open-source, free technology called BoundarySync (formerly ABOUT-US); and (2) create an online tool that spatially links digital service area boundaries with parcel data to better equip small rural utilities to meet new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory reporting requirements through the development of the Lead Service Line Inventory Tool (LSLIT). The creation of BoundarySync, in combination with LSLIT, will assist small rural utilities in meeting EPA’s new reporting requirements and provide more complete information on where lead service lines are likely to exist in their service areas. This information may inform the allocation of federal funding to support lead service line replacement and could help utilities pursue external funding for infrastructure improvements and enhance decision-making. In addition, BoundarySync will provide the state with up-to-date data to support regional and statewide planning. In Year 1, we developed BoundarySync, a user-friendly tool for the creation and maintenance of digital service area boundaries and assessed how rural utilities could use digital service area boundaries in combination with other data to solve a pressing challenge. Through these engagements, we learned that new EPA rules requiring water utilities to develop lead service line inventories placed a significant burden on rural water utilities which often do not have access to GIS software. In Year 2, we developed the LSLIT to give small rural utilities an easier way to comply with the new rules. Our methods included (1) close collaboration with the North Carolina Rural Water Association (NCRWA) to identify and reach a representative group of users to provide feedback on tool planning and development, (2) engagement with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) on the future hosting and maintenance of BoundarySync, (3) leveraging additional funding for software development support to ensure that BoundarySync had a modern and intuitive design, (4) working with a Ph.D. student and a postdoc to integrate digital service area boundaries created in BoundarySync with parcel data through LSLIT, and (5) participating in NCRWA conferences and workshops and developing instructional and promotional videos to encourage adoption and use of BoundarySync and LSLIT. Our results include (1) BoundarySync; (2) engagement with a representative group of water utilities, NCRWA leadership, and NC DEQ in a user-based design process to refine BoundarySync’s usability; (3) the Lead Service Line Inventory Tool (LSLIT); (4) engagement with rural water utilities in the planning, development, and continued improvement of LSLIT; (5) a GitHub repository for BoundarySync and LSLIT enabling other states or entities adapt these tools to their needs; (6) two instructional videos (Getting Started in BoundarySyc and Using the Admin Role in BoundarySync) and a promotional video about BoundarySync; and (7) a promotional video that details the challenges rural water utilities face in modernizing their data infrastructure and highlights NCRWA’s work. Through our engagements with North Carolina rural water utilities and partners in other states, we have discovered that there is a great deal of need for these two products not only in North Carolina but in rural areas across the US. As a result, we recommend that in addition to continuing to host, maintain, and promote these two tools in North Carolina we develop a national version of LSLIT and promote the use of LSLIT and BoundarySync throughout the US.