The economic downturn of 2008-2009 created problems for many co-ops throughout the country, but it also presented opportunities.
When the recession hit, rather than reduce services, EJ Water Cooperative in Dieterich, Illinois, took advantage of historically low interest rates to invest in infrastructure it would need when the economy rebounded.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the co-op is reaping the benefits of two new water treatment plants that have opened in the past six years. Combined, the plants can produce 4.5 million gallons of water a day for area residents and businesses. The extra capacity has allowed EJ to expand its business across downstate Illinois: Today, in addition to providing water for 10,000 member households, it also sells water on a wholesale basis to 12 communities in its service area, which extends over 2,400 square miles.
“Our leadership team is always looking for ways to improve our service to our customers,” says Chief Executive Officer Bill Teichmiller. “We knew these upgrades were going to have long-term positive impacts.”
CoBank fills in the gaps
EJ’s primary source of debt capital for investments is long-term USDA Rural Development loans. Nonetheless, water and wastewater projects usually require interim financing before construction begins. CoBank played that role for both of EJ’s new treatment plants, which was critical to getting them completed in a timely fashion.
“We use CoBank’s interim financing tool on every project now, because it’s so easy,” says Teichmiller. “The bank understands Rural Development, and Rural Development understands CoBank.”
In good times and bad
EJ has been a CoBank borrower since 2006, and has also taken advantage of the bank’s bridge financing options. When the federal government temporarily shut down in 2013, EJ thought it would have to suspend several construction projects—but CoBank stepped in to fill the void. “CoBank set up an emergency $1 million bridge line for us within a week,” Teichmiller says. “When things aren’t going so well, CoBank’s always there for us.”
“As one of the fastest-growing water systems in Illinois, EJ’s forward-thinking approach has served them and their customers well,” says Christopher Shaffner, sector vice president and manager of CoBank’s rural water lending business. “It’s a privilege to serve as their financial partner as they provide a vital service to rural communities in their service territory.”