The single largest allocation ever awarded to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for water projects is being disbursed to states, and the federal windfall could bring rural New Mexico’s aging and inadequate drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure into the 21st century.
The $50 billion allocation to the EPA, which the agency called “the single largest investment in clean water that the federal government has ever made,” is part of the $1 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that was signed into law by President Biden last November. The money will go toward repairing the nation’s essential water infrastructure, in turn helping communities access clean, safe and reliable drinking water, prevent flooding, collect and treat wastewater to protect public health, and safeguard vital waterways.
Over the next five years, New Mexico will receive a total of $133.5 million for water, wastewater and stormwater management projects, nearly half of which must benefit “small rural and/or disadvantaged communities,” said Earthea Nance, regional administrator for EPA Region 6.
“So it’s not going to be where the big cities suck up all that money,” said Nance, who spoke during a domestic water system tour in Dixon last Thursday (Sept. 29). “By statute, 40 percent goes to communities like this.”
The Dixon Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association (MDWCA) is one of nearly 200 such associations statewide, and New Mexico has a total of about 1,100 public water systems that fall under the authority of the New Mexico Environment Department and the EPA. The new funding, which will be disbursed by the state through grants and zero- or low-interest loans, is a transformative opportunity for communities, municipalities and counties that struggle to maintain and repair their water, wastewater and stormwater management systems.
“There are areas where the aging infrastructure and the lack of investment over time — basically, some communities have been ignored,” Nance told members of the Dixon water association’s board of directors, who gathered at the Dixon Volunteer Fire Department station along with state officials and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and the offices of U.S. Reps. Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández.
“It’s a known problem that small towns like this — rural towns, disadvantaged, low income communities — they weren’t provided services, were underserved,” Nance said. “We know that this is a pattern. These communities are called out as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law under a program called Justice 40. There’s a disproportionate number of poor, underserved, rural, disadvantaged communities. And so Justice 40 automatically directs 40 percent — or more — of these monies to those communities to address the inequities.”
Officials were enthusiastic about the federal investment in the state’s water infrastructure.
“Every home should have access to safe and clean water,” Lujan said in a New Mexico Environment Department press release. “I’m pleased to celebrate this grant from the EPA that will fund improvements to New Mexican acequias, water quality, and waterways infrastructure. This is one step towards ensuring clean and safe water is accessible to all.”
The federal funding can be applied to a variety of projects to improve flood control, including roadwork, for example, as long as there is a water- or climate-related component.
“It’s not just for drinking water,” Nance said. “It’s health itself. It’s climate resilience. If you’re having fires, if you’re having floods, stormwater — there’s all of these things. It’s like a Nexus, and it’s not just drinking water, It’s not just wastewater. Everything really is connected.”
While it hasn’t qualified for funding yet, the Dixon MDWCA was optimistic that new grant or loan opportunities would kickstart a $1 million, multiphase project it had engineered and designed a couple of years ago.
“We failed a state inspection, that’s one of our big concerns,” Wayne Archuleta, president of the Dixon MDWCA, told Nance, emphasizing that the system doesn’t have a water quality issue.
The water is “so clean, we don’t have to do any additives; we don’t have to chlorinate it,” he said, explaining that the state considers the underground concrete vault that houses the system’s well, pumps and other equipment to be dangerous and in need of replacement. Bringing the vault above ground was projected in 2020 to cost $309,000.
The association’s multiphase plan also calls for the replacement of frozen emergency shutoff valves and a dedicated building to house the water association’s offices. A house fire in the home where the association’s records are kept destroyed the only known copy of the system schematics, so the board of directors isn’t even sure where some of the system’s shutoff valves are located. Last year, it was forced to shut down the entire system — comprising 210 connections — in order to address an isolated leak, Archuleta said.
Because the Dixon MDWCA’s service area abuts at least two other small public water systems, Kenney told the Taos News that the area might be a good candidate for “regionalization,” which the state has been pushing for decades, with slow progress. By consolidating several water systems into one system, or combining them under a regional water authority, communities can access more funding opportunities.
“We definitely want to see more regionalization,” Kenney said. “The number of people being served by mutual domestics is already very high in New Mexico. Regionalizing them to have more leveraging power, and ensuring continuity and greater consistency in water quality is exactly where we want to go.”
Kenney noted that the state has the same goals for wastewater systems. Most rural parts of the state, including north-central New Mexico, rely on countless individual septic systems to treat sewage. The new infrastructure funding will make available significant resources for communities to repair or replace septic systems — or even transition to a sanitary sewer system.
“Theoretically, a homeowner could come in and apply for a 2.375 percent-interest loan, which is well below market rate,” Kenney said, adding that, “in the upcoming legislative session, the Environment Department is looking to put about $1.2 million, separately, into septic system replacements. We already have the authority to do this; it’s just never been done.”
New Mexico is the first state in EPA Region 6 — which also includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and 66 Native American tribes — to receive the grant awards from the EPA, “marking the first significant distribution of water infrastructure funds following the passage of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” according to an New Mexico Environment Department press release. The state will receive the funding in $26.7 million increments over the next five years.
BIL water infrastructure capitalization grants will continue to be awarded over the course of the next four years, according to the New Mexico Environment Department, which will jointly administer $17.9 million of the new funds with the New Mexico Finance Authority via the New Mexico Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a financial assistance program to help water systems and states to achieve the health protection objectives of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The additional $8.7 million in federal funds will be administered through the New Mexico Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a financial assistance program to provide loans to eligible recipients to construct municipal wastewater facilities, control non-point sources of pollution, build decentralized wastewater systems, create green infrastructure projects and fund other water quality projects.