Many rural water and sewage utilities struggled to pay for long-needed maintenance even before the coronavirus pandemic. But with so many residents out of work and unable to pay their water bills, rural utilities are finding themselves stretched too thin to stay fully operational.

"Rural water and wastewater systems have largely been left out of federal and state pandemic relief, and yet they play critical roles in local economies. Homes rely on them, of course, but so do small businesses such as eateries and large companies such as manufacturers and processing plants," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "As the virus stretches further into

smaller communities

, these systems are fighting for their survival under long-standing economic and structural weights."

The vast majority of public water utilities are rural, though the larger urban ones serve more people overall. "Of 150,000 public water systems, 97 percent are in communities of 10,000 residents or fewer, according to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national network of nonprofits whose work includes assistance to and training for water and wastewater systems," Simpson reports.

"With many states maintaining a moratorium on water shutoffs, water systems have fewer ways to deal with unpaid bills. Some advocates worry the moratoria are permitting customers to dig themselves into a deeper hole since they’ll be on the hook to pay their growing bill eventually. Meanwhile systems are providing service for free without any assurance that a local government would step in to help," Simpson reports. "Municipal and nonmunicipal systems are generally funded by user rates, not tax dollars. Small systems may not have the reserves to call on when customers facing hardship are unable to pay their bills."

Though many large water and sewage systems also face funding and maintenance issues, smaller and rural utilities have fewer resources, usually serve fewer people, and don't have as many employees who can run things if one of them becomes infected or must stay in quarantine, Simpson reports.