Going with the Flow

“This has been a wonderful field to work in because everyone can get behind drinking water, no matter where you live or your political background. We all need it, and it’s incredibly important that we protect it,” says Jennifer O’Hara Palmiotto ’82, who recently became senior federal policy advisor for the National Rural Water Association. In this role, she acts as a voice for the thousands of small water systems that provide clean drinking water and safe wastewater treatment for the United States’ most remote communities.

Palmiotto at the U.S. Water Alliance’s One Water Summit 2022 in Milwaukee.

“The utilities in the big cities usually have the resources and the time to send someone to national meetings and implement new ideas, but the little systems often only have one or two people running their operations, so it’s just not practical for them,” Palmiotto says. “I’m able to represent their interests, to interject a perspective that isn’t normally at the table.” And considering that the U.S. comprises more than 52,000 community water systems—91 percent of which serve fewer than 10,000 people, with more than half serving just 25 to 500 people—she certainly has her work cut out for her.

Palmiotto was somewhat of an early disciple of the environmental movement, coming of age at a time when concerns about pollution and the changing climate were only just gaining widespread attention. But thanks to one inspiring professor while an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, she quickly developed a passion for conservation—first working with researchers studying palm species in Belize and then earning a Ph.D. from the Yale School of the Environment and briefly teaching at Bowdoin and Bates colleges.

After a few years, though, Palmiotto reached a watershed moment in her career, realizing that she could make a greater impact outside of academia. So, she rolled up her sleeves and became a source water specialist in the Northeast, traveling throughout Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to consult with rural communities, identify potential sources of contamination in their drinking water supplies, and develop customized solutions—which included everything from measuring chemical levels in the water and helping local stakeholders apply for federal grants to setting up fake coyotes to deter ducks and geese from landing on the surface of reservoirs. “By that point, I had worked in a number of different areas, but I was always coming back to water,” she says. “And this job drew on a bunch of skills that I had, like working with people, land conservation, and education. It really tied up a lot of loose threads and said to me very clearly that this was where I should be.”

Palmiotto followed her time as a source water specialist with a 14-year tenure as the executive director of Granite State Rural Water Association, which caters to all of New Hampshire’s water and wastewater systems, before expanding her reach and joining NRWA in March 2021.

“As a rural person myself, I really understand the struggles of small systems—from cybersecurity and operational concerns to regulatory issues and all of the chemicals they have to monitor,” she says. “Previously, the NRWA didn’t have the bandwidth to send someone to represent these smaller systems at conferences and important meetings, but by bringing me on board, we are able help them have a presence in conversations with the Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations working on water resource issues.”

An Adirondacks-inspired watercolor, Island by Jennifer Palmiotto.

While her new role requires that she crisscross the country—in the past few months alone she’s attended major conferences in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Maryland—Palmiotto never loses sight of the needs of the people she represents. “The small systems I work with are the ultimate natural resource managers, and they are seeing firsthand the effects of increasingly severe storms, droughts, and wildfires,” she says.

“But at the same time, the field staff of the NRWA do so much incredible work on the grassroots level to help them. This model was formed 45 years ago by rural Americans to create water systems for their communities and families. The problem was identified by local people, and the solution was also identified by local people, so I’m glad to now get to be a part of that legacy and be an advocate on their behalf.”