Icon (Close Menu)


Building Resilience: ARWA’s Mission to Strengthen Arkansas’ Water InfrastructureLock Icon

6 min read

When it comes to the day-to-day challenges of an aging infrastructure, the Arkansas Rural Water Association serves on the frontlines alongside towns and small communities across the state.

The nonprofit organization supplies problem solving in the field to help keep clean water flowing with its in-house know-how.

“Everybody needs good drinking water,” said Dennis Sternberg, CEO of ARWA. “We’re the technical assistance provider.”

In addition to helping municipal and rural utilities safeguard and manage the delivery of potable water, the association also provides expertise to help maintain and repair wastewater systems.

More than 500 of the state’s 680 community water/wastewater systems are members of the association. Membership equates to having the money-saving services of an uber-plumber on retainer.

The association’s base of operations for 19 staffers is a 15,665-SF complex in Lonoke that functions as an office building, vocational school and warehouse. Its equipment includes massive diesel powered generators and spare pumps.

“The city of Wynne has been using our emergency bypass pump since the March 31 tornado,” Sternberg said.


In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018, some of the ARWA crew traveled to the Florida Panhandle with two big generators to help restore water and wastewater service in Lynn Haven.

The community north of Panama City was hit hard by the storm and inundated with more than 11.5 inches of rain. The Arkansas contingent spent the better part of two weeks in Lynn Haven and rolled out of town with an appreciative sendoff by residents.

Over the years, ARWA has trained hundreds in the skills of operating and managing water and wastewater facilities.

Among the training amenities is an outdoor lab where operators can hone their leak detection skills on an underground pipe network on the west side of the association’s 7-acre property.

A mini-water system provides hands-on training indoors along with three classrooms to accommodate various-sized instructional gatherings.

ARWA’s services extend beyond mechanical operations and repairs to assistance with management, finance and governance issues.

Helping water providers properly complete regulatory paperwork and avoid penalties is among the tasks taken on by the association staff.

Training is an important part of the mission, said Dennis Sternberg, CEO of the Arkansas Rural Water Association.
Training is an important part of the mission, said Dennis Sternberg, CEO of the Arkansas Rural Water Association. (Steve Lewis)


Another ARWA service is preparing rate studies to help water systems maintain their fiscal affairs in good order.

This gained additional importance in the wake of Act 605 of 2021, which mandates a rate study every five years for Arkansas water providers or before any major development project is undertaken.


An overarching effect of the law was removing local politics from determining a sound rate structure and enacting necessary changes.

“It takes it out of the hands of boards and commissions,” Sternberg said.

In The Field

Last week, ARWA staffers were finishing up a smoke test to detect leaks in the Bald Knob wastewater system. The process blows a benign chemical fog into the sewer system and waits to see if any of the “smoke” appears.

The spots where the white odorless vapor rises to the surface identifies potential points of infiltration, breaks in the sewer system that allow rainwater or groundwater to enter pipes.

The unwanted inflow ramps up the volume of water that cycles through the city’s treatment facilities, which drives up processing costs as well as causing regulatory issues.

“We’ve got a lot of intrusion and infiltrations that they’ve helped ID and get a GPS location,” said Bald Knob Mayor Gary Looney. “We’ve got to get it taken care of. We’ve got no choice. We’ve got to meet guidelines.”

A large ongoing project is ARWA’s help in merging what was once three Mississippi County water systems into one.

The combination of the Joiner, Bassett and Sandridge-Bardstown Water Association will be served by an estimated $7 million upgrade that includes a new filtration treatment plant, well and water tank with additional lines to link the systems.

Chris Harris

Rehabbing the Joiner wastewater treatment plant carries an estimated price tag of $2.7 million. The upgraded facilities will be built near the existing treatment plant and water tower in Joiner.

“It’s been a process,” said Chris Harris, deputy director of the Arkansas Rural Water Association. “We are under the same operations umbrella now and hopefully, physically connected in the next year. The funding for the improvements is a mix of loans and grants.”


Helena Update

Helena-West Helena Water & Sewer Inc. was a recent ARWA member. But a new administration at city hall decided not to renew its $1,275 annual membership this year.

“A new mayor [Christopher Franklin] was elected, and Helena said they couldn’t afford it,” Sternberg said.

Despite dropping its membership, the city received emergency assistance from ARWA to get its West Helena water treatment plant back in working order after it shut down this summer, prompting a boil order advisory and an 18-day battle to restore safe drinking water.

Association staffers have tallied about 21 work days and counting to help restore service at the treatment facility and make overdue repairs to the long-neglected water system stressed by innumerable leaks.

“If you don’t maintain, guess what happens?” Sternberg said of the city’s self-inflicted crisis. “We help anyone, and we encourage everyone to be a member.”

Replacing the West Helena water plant’s antiquated pneumatic-actuated valve system with a modern electronic-actuated valve system remains a work in progress. “Getting the programming worked out has been a little bit of an undertaking,” Harris said. “We hope to get everything adjusted in the next week or two.”

A breakdown in West Helena’s outdated valve system was a big domino that fell and contributed to the calamitous failure of the water system.

The ongoing battle to repair scores of leaks extends to the Helena system, where contractors work to prevent a similar failure.

“All of the work we’ve done is on the West Helena side,” Harris said. “We identified 69 more leaks about two weeks ago. I won’t say it’s in the worse shape [of the city’s two water systems]. It was the one that failed, this time.”

Organizational Info

The Arkansas Rural Water Association operates on an annual budget of $2.4 million. About 59% of the yearly funding comes from the National Rural Water Association.


Other funds are derived from annual membership fees paid by water utilities around Arkansas and annual dividends from the association’s Aquasure insurance program.

Since its inception in 1999, Aquasure has generated $1 million in occasional dividends for ARWA as a premium rebate tied to low-loss years.

The group arrangement affords members a less expensive insurance option than the individual water systems could find on their own.

The lines of coverage offered include workers’ compensation, general liability, equipment, commercial auto, property, cyber and directors and officers.



Arkansas Rural Water Association Field Calls

# Municipality/Utility System Connections Service




chlorination system repairs


Beaver Fork Fire District


leak detection, regulatory paperwork


Morning Star Water Association


staff training


Des Arc


leak detection


West Helena


broken valve & numerous leak repairs


Walker Water Association


computer system repairs




leak detection and repair damage caused by fiber optic contractor


Cave City


leak detection


Fulton County Water Association


hydrant leak repair




leak repair, install new water line


Mockingbird Hill Water Association


leak detection




leak detection and training




leak detection


Horsehead Water Association


leak detection




leak detection


North Howard County Water Association


update emergency response plan




regulatory paperwork




regulatory paperwork




regulatory paperwork




regulatory paperwork


Compton Water Association


leak detection

Source: ARWA Significant Contact Reports, 2023

Launched in September 1977, ARWA moved its original headquarters from 8501 Geyer Springs Road in Little Rock to its Dale Bumpers Rural Water Training Facility in Lonoke in December 1999.

The association is governed by a 16-member board of directors elected from its member utilities. Two directors are elected from the voting membership in each of the eight districts in Arkansas.

The national rural water organization is governed by a nine-member executive board. Those nine members are derived from the group’s board of directors, composed of representatives from each of the 50 states.


John Choate, general manager of Tri County Regional Water Distribution District in Russellville, represents Arkansas on the national board. The Tri County service area covers Pope, Yell and Logan counties.

Send this to a friend