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$331M in Clean Water Infrastructure Spending Coming to Rural Areas in 39 States


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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced that the USDA will invest $331 million into clean water infrastructure projects in rural communities. Of the 85 dedicated projects across 39 states, approximately half will go towards low-income StrikeForce counties. During the Obama Presidency, the USDA has invested $13.9 billion in 5,825 water and waste infrastructure projects benefitting 19.5 million rural residents.

“Strategic investments like these into community infrastructure provide a path to rural economic growth,” Vilsack said. “Water and wastewater upgrades protect the health and safety of those who live and work in rural areas, and are especially critical given today’s aging infrastructure in areas that have not fully benefited from rural America’s economic rebound. Modernizing water and wastewater systems improves the quality of life and can help attract jobs to rural communities.”

USDA is providing $264 million in loans and $67 million in grants through Rural Development’s  Water & Environmental Programs. These programs provide assistance and financing to develop drinking water and waste disposal systems for communities with 10,000 or fewer residents.

This new investment comes at a time when clean water is a major point of contention in many urban communities, most notably Flint, Michigan.

After the revelation that Flint’s drinking water contained dangerous levels of lead contamination, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) formed a commission to examine the city’s aging water infrastructure and proposed a fund to help with upgrades. The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) decided on an additional $54 million annual allotment for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to spend on upgrades. Unfortunately, that didn’t come close to being enough:

A $54 million increase sounds substantial, but it’s not much against a problem that could require an investment of $14-$26 billion more in GLWA communities over the next two decades, according to researchcompiled by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). In fact, prior to a September budget amendment, the projected boost in new investments was half that much.

The GLWA says the city of Detroit bears much of the burden, with the DWSD having lost $1.5 billion over the last eight years. The GLWA hopes to downsize the entire sewer/water network in an effort to save time and costs. But the effort would still take decades:

[The] massive waterworks system includes the largest sewage treatment plant in North America, five drinking water plants and hundreds of thousands of component parts. With a reach of more than 1,000 square miles, it serves 4 million water and sewer customers in more than 120 communities.

Residents will continue to contend with flooded streets and basements during heavy rains, the result of an archaic drainage system; sewage spills and overflows into area waterways, including Lake St. Clair; and other manifestations of the neglect of the system, including waste, via leakage, of its central resource – water – approaching one-third of its treated output.

Officials concerned about the political cost of failing to update failing water infrastructure in a timely manner can take comfort in the fact that public interest in the issue is fading fast. According to a new EPIC-MRA poll, only 5% of voters see infrastructure as a high-ranking problem in Michigan.

The USDA did the right thing investing in rural clean water infrastructure. Perhaps we would do well to invest in aging urban water and sewage infrastructure, as well.


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