Author: Mayberry, Anne
Date published: January 1, 2010
When EJ Water Cooperative was incorporated in 1989, plans were to serve 400 residents. Today, EJ water has more than 7,500 memberhouseholds and serves a rural population of 23,000 in seven counties of south-central Illinois, near the state capital of Springfield.
"People just kept signing up," co-op CEO Bill Teichmiller says, quoting EJ's first president, Delbert Mundt, in explaining the cooperative's success. Teichmiller says that a combination of factors is behind the continued growth of the utility.
"The biggest drivers in Southern Illinois are both quality and quantity of water. Where the glacier stopped, water is not plentiful," he says, referring to the second of two glacial masses that moved through the region during the Ice Age, flattening much of the terrain and depositing rich soil in parts of the state.
"The second glacier stopped around Champaign, about in the center of the state," says Teichmiller. "Ground water is readily available north of this line, but south of the line we didn't get the glacial till, which promotes additional ground water supply." Those soil deposits today are the reason agriculture thrives here and plays a key role in the state's economy. But finding water in this part of the state is difficult, he says. "In addition, the presence of oil and gas can cause problems with water quality."
The presence of sulfur and saltwater are often among the issues the utility must address, Teichrniller explains. Area residents who are not members of the water cooperative may get their water from wells, or - more likely - from cisterns.
"Some people haul their drinking water, which is time consuming, expensive and is problematic in winter when it freezes," he adds. "We have about 700 unserved members, so we typically have one board member from an unserved area. That keeps us focused." When new households join the co-op, they pay a $125 membership fee. They don't pay a monthly water bill until a water meter is installed and they begin receiving service. At that point, they pay an additional $625 for the meter.
Benefiting from location
Part of the area EJ Water Cooperative serves benefits from its location. Two interstate highways - I57, which links Chicago with the Gulf Coast, and 1-70, which connects the East and West Coasts - meet in Effingham, which is among the larger towns in EJ's service area. The co-op's name is an acronym for both Effingham and Jasper County, two of the seven counties the utility serves.
EJ's growth is also due to an overall trend of smaller towns getting out of the water and wastewater business. Increasing costs and the responsibility of compliance with clean water regulations can make it more difficult for areas with dwindling populations to deliver quality water at an affordable price.
The co-op was awarded a $556,000 combination loan and grant in November with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The funds will be used to supply unserved areas with water.
"Areas with higher [population] density and where construction is easy are usually among the first to connect, while others take longer," Teichrniller says. "We are able to reach areas that would be difficult or cosdy to serve thanks to the help of USDA Rural Development and HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] funding, which is distributed throughout the state," Teichrniller says.
Commitment to extend service
EJ's board remains dedicated to providing water service to as many unserved members as possible, and their work with USDA continues to help the utility provide service to rural areas. "We love Rural Development - we are among the largest borrowers in Illinois for water programs and we would not be able to do what we do without USDA," Teichrniller says. "This is not just financial - we also use Rural Development's expertise with rules, rates, regulations and technical assistance. EJ plays a key role in economic development, and we do that with guidance from Rural Development."
Teichrniller cites USDA's Circuit Rider and Wastewater Tech programs as being especially useful. These programs are funded through the National Rural Water Association, and offer technical assistance to small villages and rural communities that can lack financial resources or technical expertise.
"It's hard to find qualified people. We manage and operate three sewer systems in our service area, and small villages often do not have the required expertise. But with the help of Rural Development, communities discovered that working together they can afford to hire a qualified technician, and we've gone in that direction." Today, EJ has a staff of 25 full- and part-time workers.
Utilities in Illinois work closely together, Teichrniller says, and increasing rely on each others' services. "Broadband and cell service is opening doors in our ability to use technology. We use systems for remote monitoring and, with the help of broadband, our trucks are e-mailed service orders and can access water-system controls, maps and other pertinent information from a database."
Why a co-op?
Why a cooperative business model? The utility connection played a role in the business structure of the water cooperative. There are two basic models for water utilities, and Teichrniller says that establishing a public water district - which would have required the annexation of areas wanting service - did not provide the flexibility that the co-op model does.
"In addition, Delbert Mundt was on the Norris Electric Cooperative Board and president of the Illinois Association of Electric Cooperatives. Delbert understood the cooperative business model," Teichrniller explains. Mundt remains EJ's board chairman.
EJ was the first rural water utility in Illinois to be awarded funding to build a water plant while it was beginning distribution. Most new water utilities purchase water from a third party. The co-op's water sources are a reservoir and groundwater. The water utility currendy pumps 1.4 million to 1.8 million gallons of water daily.
EJ broke ground last July for its Delbert D. Mundt water treatment plant, which ultimately is expected to treat an additional 3 million gallons per day and secure a 30- to 40-year projected water supply to meet projected demand.
Although some counties in this area are declining in population, Effingham continues to grow, Teichrniller says. EJ's continued growth has helped keep costs affordable for its members. Despite the growth, the area is still rural, Teichrniller stresses. "We drive about 2,300 miles per month to read about 7,500 meters."
By Anne Mayberry
Rural Utilities Service
USDA Rural Development