Delaware Rural Water Association funds new building with USDA loan

Water circuit rider Sherrie Turner demonstrates the ground penetration radar outside the new Delaware Rural Water Association’s Educational Training Facility in Milford. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

MILFORD — The Delaware Rural Water Association has a new building, thanks in part to a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which helped offset construction costs.

“We are a nonprofit trade organization that provides training and on-site technical assistance to the water and wastewater community and municipal facilities throughout the state of Delaware,” said Richard Duncan, DRWA’s executive director. The group’s main goal is “to make sure consumers are getting clean, safe, potable drinking water.”

Mr. Duncan said the Milford-based DRWA began construction on its new building at 210 Vickers Drive in December 2018 and was able to move in by January 2020. The new structure allows DRWA to conduct higher-quality training for water and wastewater operators, plumbers and irrigation specialists in a more streamlined environment.

“We were having to train in one building and go outside to do the hands-on work,” Mr. Duncan said. “The new building houses everything all in one room, so all of the equipment are mounted on walls, so these operators can get up out of their classroom seats and go into the second part of the building and start working.”

Bill Hague, left, a water circuit rider with the Delaware Rural Water Association, and Richard Duncan, the group’s executive director, lead specialized training sessions covering a broad spectrum of needs for water professionals. The association recently opened a new training facility in Milford. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

Now, Mr. Duncan said DRWA will also be able to train fire-oriented water technicians who handle sprinklers and pumps.

DRWA was able to offset the cost of this new construction via a $175,000 loan from the USDA.

“We were giving them a community facilities loan to expand their training site, so they could have more water and wastewater operators,” said Damien Taylor, a public information officer with the USDA.

He said the DRWA also received a $35,000 grant with this loan to fund new mobile training equipment.

Mr. Taylor said the USDA has worked extensively with DRWA in the past. This year, it was one of 94 groups from across the country granted some sort of funding by the USDA’s Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program, which is focused on improving key municipal resources in rural communities.

Denise Lovelady, USDA’s rural development state director for Delaware and Maryland, said these new funds for DRWA will be a big part of furthering that goal within her area of focus.

“Essential community infrastructure is key in ensuring rural areas receive services that improve quality of life,” said Ms. Lovelady. “This rural development investment will afford Delaware water and wastewater professionals exceptional training opportunities.”

The DRWA was founded in 1990 as the local branch of the National Rural Water Association, which Mr. Duncan said has 31,000 registered members nationwide. Today, the DRWA has almost 300 companies and individuals listed in its online membership directory.

“They’re growing rapidly, but they need more space in order to train and keep those professionals up to speed,” Mr. Taylor said of the DRWA. “So we’re giving them the loan to be able to expand, so they can create better training opportunities and more training opportunities, so they can grow their number of operators.”

Mr. Duncan said DRWA is expanding its offerings quickly to mitigate an impending dearth of properly trained water and wastewater operators as many in the industry reach retirement age.

“Thirty to 50% of our workforce is retiring in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It takes about 380,000 skilled water and wastewater operators to run these facilities throughout the United States.”

Mr. Duncan said reaching out to and training young people has been key to DRWA’s recent work and that the organization’s apprenticeship program has been a big part of that effort.

“Last year, we started an apprenticeship program and had seven individuals taking the course, and we’ve probably got another five to 10 starting this year,” he said. “It’s our goal to educate them on their skills and operations and so forth, so that they can be better employees.”

Mr. Duncan has also been doing outreach at local high schools.

“We’re trying to get more of … our high school kids into our classes to educate them, and we’ve been working with schools to try to educate them on the different careers in water and wastewater,” he said. “We’ve had several success stories. Some of these kids that have just graduated have gotten opportunities to become employees at several municipalities in Delaware.”