Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rural stakeholders encouraged to speak up to get federal aid for water systems; more funds may be on the way

As state and local governments decide how to spend their share of federal pandemic aid, rural water experts are encouraging stakeholders to educate themselves about the available aid and speak up about their water-system improvement needs, Daniel Vock reports for Route Fifty.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act included $350 billion in direct aid to help state and local governments cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic, but the law also allows recipients to use the money for other priorities such as water infrastructure, Vock notes.

Liz Royer, executive director of the Vermont Rural Water Association, is encouraging rural water systems in her state to tell town officials about their needs. Royer said some of the smallest systems would have few other options to get money from the state, especially those run by fire districts instead of town governments. But even small amounts of funding could be critical to small water systems.

"You’re not going to do a loan application [through the state] for a $10,000 or $20,000 project," Royer told Vock. "But some of these very, very small systems may only have 50 customers, so for them to do an upgrade that’s going to cost $25,000 is going to be a big hit to their customers with low incomes."

Mike Keegan, a regulatory analyst for the National Rural Water Association, told Vock that educating local government officials about the aid will be one of the biggest hurdles for rural water systems to get a share of the funding.

Meanwhile, federal aid specifically for rural water systems continues to flow. The Agriculture Department Rural Development office is allotting $307 million to modernizing rural drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in 34 states and Puerto Rico. Click here for a list of recipients, and click here for more information about the program or to apply).

Congress may approve more money for water-utility improvement as well. Earlier this month the House passed a $715 billion infrastructure bill that would authorize up to $117 billion in drinking-water projects over five years and $51 billion for wastewater infrastructure, Vock reports. 

Most Republicans opposed the Democrat-led bill, but a narrower bill focused on water infrastructure only passed the Senate with only two dissenting votes in April. That bill "would spend up to $35 billion over five years on water infrastructure. That includes nearly $15 billion each for both the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds," Vock reports. "While the Senate bill’s authorization levels might look small compared to the House’s levels, it would still nearly double the money for the drinking water fund in the first year and increase those levels after that."

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