New Money Flowing into U.S. Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

USDA grants and loans are funding new treatment plants, sewer and water lines in rural communities.

Highways and bridges are the most noticeable examples of the United States’ crumbling infrastructure, but there are other, less visible infrastructure systems that are equally in need of fixes and funding. 

Two such systems are water and wastewater. The former provides clean water for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc. to almost 300 million people and includes 1 million miles of pipes, many of which are aging and prone to breakage. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water are lost each year due to water main breaks. According to the American Water Works Association, it will take about $1 trillion over the next 25 years to repair and upgrade the system.

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The wastewater infrastructure also needs work. It currently includes more than 14,000 water treatment plants, which process “used” water from households, businesses and industry, removing pollutants and toxins before the water enters waterways. In a 2017 report card, the ASCE gave America’s wastewater infrastructure a D+ grade. The group estimates that it will take more than $271 billion to maintain and repair existing wastewater treatment systems and build new ones that are needed to meet growing demands. 

State and local governments have been doing their best to invest in water and wastewater infrastructure, but budgets are tight. However, the federal government does provide some assistance for these projects through several programs.

Rural communities with populations of 10,000 or fewer can apply for funding for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program. Since May 2019, the USDA has announced that it will be providing loans and/or grants to 160 projects in 36 states. They include:

  • Michigan - $667,000 to the Village of Akron. It will make improvements to a sewer collection system that hasn’t had a major upgrade since the 1970s, replace a pumping station and replace relief valves that haven’t worked for 30 years.
  • Utah – A $1.95 million loan and a $942,000 grant to the Spanish Valley Water and Sewer Improvement District. It will allow the community to replace old pipe used to transport drinking water with new, higher capacity pipe.
  • Kentucky - A $4.5 million loan and a $961,000 grant to the tiny city of Leitchfield. Leitchfield will replace a water treatment plant that can’t meet current water quality regulations. The new plant will have increased capacity to meet future demand.
  • Ohio - A $1.2 million loan and a $1.3 million grant to Gomer, in Allen County. The funds will go toward constructing a modern wastewater collection system that will collect sewage from more than 360 residential and commercial users currently using individual systems and redirect it to a wastewater treatment plant. The individual systems are contaminating stormwater that flows into the Ottawa and Maumee Rivers.

The Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program is for smaller projects, but larger systems also need help. 

In the latest iteration of the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), passed in 2018, Congress authorized funding that could provide as much as $6 billion in long-term loans for “regionally and nationally significant” water and wastewater projects. This funding may or may not be included in annual federal spending bills, however.  And it may be a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the need. The EPA has already received requests for more than $21 billion for water projects since WIFIA’s inception in 2017. 

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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