Identifying—and Capturing—Future Demand is Key for Iowa Regional Utilities Association

October 2018 -

As CEO and engineer for Iowa Regional Utilities Association, Jim LaPlant oversees a $200-million water and wastewater system. It serves more than 15,000 farms and rural residences, plus 65 small communities, in 18 counties. Amid shifting demographics, IRUA is charting new avenues of opportunity.

What’s the biggest challenge facing IRUA?

LaPlant: Fewer users. The ongoing population shift from rural to urban due to farm consolidation is resulting in a smaller IRUA customer base. We’re addressing that by holding on to service territories near larger, expanding cities and upgrading water supply, including available flow rates, to municipal-level standards in these areas. A significant number of future IRUA customers are expected to reside in the fringe areas around larger cities. We have also enhanced marketing efforts to existing small communities that could benefit in water cost and quality by partnering with IRUA for their water supply. In turn, IRUA benefits by serving a large existing customer group, usually with reserve water capacity that has already been established.

What’s the latest technology IRUA has implemented?

LaPlant: We recently completed a $4 million program to replace 14,000 obsolete customer meters with new automatic-read meters. The new technology features history and leak-alert functions. It also allows us to download usage profiles and charts to accurately display gallons used over specific time intervals. That’s valuable in detecting and identifying leaks as well as in water conservation initiatives.

What is the regional water industry’s greatest need?

LaPlant: Access to capital for new infrastructure related to shifts in rural population density and new small-community customers – both are key to our future financial stability. Most regional water systems like IRUA were originally government-sponsored projects for defined service areas. With the base projects now completed, the need for capital to address system facility upgrades and improvements is crucial. CoBank has created a culture of customer service and support that has helped IRUA deal with the financing of improvements that must be done on a short time frame to meet a special-project need.

For example, the city of Fairbank, population 1,114, has ongoing issues with high radium levels and long-term water-supply capacity. In December 2017, the city council voted in favor of connecting to IRUA. To meet tight EPA compliance schedules, IRUA had to complete the design of over $675,000 in water main and pumping station improvements and get construction underway. CoBank had the necessary financing available immediately, which was paramount in making the IRUA proposal feasible.

What’s next for IRUA?

LaPlant: We recently started a new Framework Study Project to align IRUA with rural America’s trend toward consolidation in the water industry. This initiative’s primary objective is to leverage economies of scale and available capacity into unserved or underserved areas within our existing boundaries or areas adjacent to our northern boundaries. IRUA has existing regional-system neighbors to the south, east and west. The study will help unite stakeholders and focus on regional alternatives for water supply. It will also help define future boundaries of our system and help small communities plan for water supply and distribution challenges.

Iowa Regional Utilities Association

Newton, Iowa

General Manager
Jim LaPlant

Years with CoBank

Number of Water and Sewer Customers
15,500 (includes 65 small communities)

Miles of Pipeline