image of water
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's loans and grants are to be used for projects related to drinking water, wastewater, sanitary solid waste disposal, and stormwater management.(Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash)

In late October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it had awarded $891 million in loans and grants for rural drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects in 43 states. Awarded through the USDA’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, the funding will help pay for 220 projects benefiting an estimated 787,000 residents.

The Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program is administered by USDA Rural Development, an entity that offers more than 50 financial assistance programs for utilities, developers, communities and nonprofit organizations, tribes, businesses, individuals, and lenders in rural areas. To be eligible to receive funding from the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, recipients must be located in rural areas or towns having populations of 10,000 or less, tribal lands in rural areas, or colonias, which are substandard housing developments typically found in southwestern states near the border with Mexico.

Program funds are to be used for projects related to drinking water, wastewater, sanitary solid waste disposal, and stormwater management.

“Upgrading water infrastructure provides a path to economic growth and protects the health and safety of people who live and work in rural areas,” said Bette Brand, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for rural development in an Oct. 27 news release.

All told, the funding announced by the USDA on Oct. 27 took the form of approximately $693 million in low-­interest loans and about $198 million in grants. Funding was provided to projects in every state except Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wyoming. Sixteen projects received funding in Michigan and New York, the most of any states.

Other top recipients included Kentucky, with 13 funded projects; Illinois, with 11; and Mississippi, with 10. The USDA awarded funding to nine projects in Tennessee and Minnesota.

The largest award went to the Mni Wašté Water Co., in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Chartered by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the company provides drinking water to 14,000 members of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Mni Wašté Water received a loan of $9.6 million and a grant of $17.5 million for a total of $27.1 million. 

In conjunction with additional funding from the U.S. Indian Health Service, Mni Wašté Water will use the USDA funds to complete the North Highway 63 water project, according to information provided by the department. “This project will improve and extend water services to the northeastern area of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and improve water pressures along the route, alleviating potential health and sanitary concerns (associated) with water pressure issues,” the USDA stated. 

The project includes approximately 35 mi of water pipeline and a booster station, says Leo Fischer, the executive director of Mni Wašté Water. “There are about 1,900 homes and taps that are not being served currently that can be served when we’re done with this particular project,” Fischer says.

The town of Hardwick, Massachusetts, received a loan of $5.7 million and a grant of $16.5 million, for a total of $22.2 million, the third-largest amount of funding disbursed by the USDA in late October as part of the program. Together with an approximately $5 million grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the town will use the funding to upgrade two wastewater treatment plants and three pump stations, says Scott Potter, the water pollution control facility superintendent for the town. 

Combined, the 230,000 gal./day Gilbertville WWTP and the 42,000 gal./day Wheelwright WWTP serve approximately 1,000 residents. Although the Wheelwright facility is only 11 years old, the Gilbertville plant dates to 1973. The upgrades, which are to be completed within three years, would take much longer in the absence of the federal and state funding sources, Potter says. “We would definitely have to scale the project back a lot if we didn’t have these grants,” he notes.

The recently announced funding from the USDA is the fourth round of the program in 2020. In May, the department awarded $281 million from the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program for projects in 36 states and Puerto Rico. In August, the USDA announced that it was providing $462 million for projects in 44 states, while in September it made $268 million available for projects in 28 states.

This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.