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EJ Water Cooperative: Urban-Rural Connections for Water and Beyond

· Water,Wastewater,Members,Innovation

EJ Water Cooperative is celebrating its 30th anniversary – thirty years of bringing water to communities in “dry”, rural Illinois, who would otherwise not have access to reliable water service. Today, led by their forward-thinking CEO, Bill Teichmiller, they’ve asked themselves the question: “What’s going to keep EJ Water relevant for the next 30 years?” Their answers to that question can be found in the organization’s motto: “Improving the quality of life, the cooperative way.”

EJ Water Coop was established in 1989, after a group of residents in Dieterich, Illinois organized to gather commitments of more than 300 households, who were interested in water service in their town. Within three years, 100 miles of water main were installed enabling EJ Water to service 480 households. Over the next 25 years, EJ grew to serve more than 77,000 people in 13 counties and acquired two water treatment plants and a subsidiary wastewater treatment cooperative, making EJ Water the largest rural water cooperative in Illinois.

Teichmiller and co. attribute their success to their team’s drive to partner with smaller water utilities and roll them up into their operation to achieve economies of scale. This business strategy has been particularly important because smaller communities often lack the resources they need to efficiently maintain and operate their water systems. In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are nearly 53,000 water suppliers in the U.S., 42,000 of which provide water to populations of 3,000 residents or fewer. These statistics are fueling the growing trend of acquisitions and consolidations throughout the water industry.

EJ Water’s head further explained that due to low margins, water utility operations require high volume in order to be profitable.

“Water is the lowest margin utility there is, after wastewater. So, scaling EJ Water through the consolidation of smaller suppliers is an important ingredient that really needs to be looked at by small towns – there is nothing to be afraid of. By integrating their systems into EJ Water, towns can save 30-40 percent on overhead costs,” said Teichmiller.

Furthermore, declining populations in many rural markets, as well as limited budgets, only make matters worse for smaller systems that may lack experienced staff to maintain them. These smaller systems also frequently lack the resources to replace aging infrastructure or remain compliant with EPA regulations, which only magnifies the growing challenge. To add to that, the vast majority of these utilities don’t engage in long-term strategic planning related to infrastructure. All the more reason why EJ Water’s services are needed throughout central Illinois.

With water and wastewater service solutions in place, EJ Water is now looking to build on its history of improving the overall quality of life for rural Illinois residents with its next endeavor: partnering to provide broadband internet service.

“A great collaboration can exist between rural and urban areas,” remarked Bill Tieichmiller. “We need each other. Rural areas provide resources and food, and the broader economy is much more connected than we think. People have a need to be connected as well.”

By forming a partnership with a telecom to install fiber cabling in the same trenches as water piping, EJ helps bring these two utilities – now both necessities in today’s economy – to even more areas than before. This expanded service will allow for more population retention and growth, job opportunities and a more sustainable way of life.

“We’re thrilled to have EJ Water Cooperative join our growing roster of trailblazing utility and industry members who are delivering innovative business models that are as important in the water industry as technologies in modernizing utility operations,” said Steve Frenkel, Current’s Executive Director. “EJ is an example of a water utility that is looking toward the future, with new ideas that benefit their service areas and beyond. We look forward to continuing to support EJ Water as they grow and bring innovative solutions to the communities they serve.”

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