Exploring Water Partnership Opportunities in Surry County

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

Rick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.

Over the past several months Jeff Hughes and Andrew Westbrook of the Environmental Finance Center, along with my Public Intersection colleague Lydian Altman and I, have worked with Surry County public officials to explore water partnership opportunities. The project underscores the reality that significant interjurisdictional partnerships don’t “just happen” and that collaboration requires a lot of work. But when potential partners are willing to openly explore alternatives to the status quo, a shared understanding of collaborative advantage can be created, leading to the development of win-win partnerships.

This project, funded by Golden LEAF, has been about helping potential partners explore partnership opportunities around water provision. In Surry County there are currently five jurisdictions in the “water business” (Dobson, Elkin, Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain, and Surry County). With most large manufacturers having left the county, the water systems collectively have significant excess capacity, with several utilities struggling to keep up with the costs of operation given the reduction in customers. In prior conversations facilitated by Golden LEAF, there was a consensus around exploring partnership opportunities and a recognition that the potential partners would need assistance to move forward.

The project team provided this assistance by first meeting with each jurisdiction’s board separately in education sessions that provided all of the partners a common understanding regarding strategic water issues in the county as well as some basic information on successful partnerships. A Water Partnership Working Group (WPWG) was then established, made up of both elected and appointed officials from each jurisdiction. The group met four times and developed a set of “partnership principles” that will serve as a guide in evaluating potential partnership models.

At the last of these meetings (Jan. 12, 2010), the group was presented with an analysis of current agreements, potential partnership models, and recommendations regarding next steps.  Chief among those recommendations was that the WPWG evolve into a more formal county-wide advisory committee dealing with water issues. The participants unanimously endorsed that recommendation and several noted how it was particularly valuable to have the elected officials and staff together, noting the importance of bringing both technical and political perspectives to the table.

While at this time the group has not settled on a particular partnership model, there is clearly a good deal of enthusiasm around moving forward. The group has consensus around partnership principles and it is clear that relationships are being developed that will serve them well as specific proposals are considered. The group also indicated a willingness to take ownership of the process moving forward, with EFC or any other consultants in the future providing analytic support rather than facilitating the process. So in this sense a partnership has already formed in the WPWG that will soon morph into a more formal cross-jurisdictional committee. The likelihood that more significant forms of collaboration around water provision in Surry County will be adopted in the near future has definitely increased.

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