Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative. The initial funding for the effort will be $5 million and will give poor and small rural communities access to a wide range of assistance in accessing a wide array of federal programs.
The USDA-led network brings together twenty federal agencies and regional commissions to help rural communities create economic opportunity by accessing resources and funding that match their unique needs and priorities. These monies were invisible to and unavailable to these communities. It takes trained experts to access federal programs designed to help communities. So, the federal government had to create a program to help access other federal programs.
EPA and USDA experts will work directly with local officials to draft detailed proposals including needs assessments and project lists required by state governments under the federal programs. This need for technical expertise has effectively shut out these communities from accessing financial assistance for their water and wastewater projects.
The new initiative will be piloted in 11 communities across the country where residents lack basic wastewater management that is essential to protecting their health and the environment. Around 2 million Americans lack access to running water and/or a flush toilet. This number includes the estimated 560,000 homeless population in our cities and communities that many see daily, but there are over 1,400,000 mostly rural Americans who are housed but lack running water and basic indoor plumbing. Many more live with wastewater infrastructure that is ineffective and puts people’s health at risk.
Access to sanitation is the most serious water access concern in the rural South- rural Mississippi, Alabama and the Delta region. A septic system that can function in this type of black soil with a shallow water table can cost $30,000 or more to build and is called an AOSS- alternative on-site sewage system. Though very effective, these systems also require regular service to remain functioning. Instead, some residents use PVC pipes to remove wastewater away from homes, sometimes right into their back yards, a practice known as “straight-piping.”
Straight-piped systems, failing septic systems, and wastewater lagoons generate considerable public health impacts, including the resurgence of water-borne illnesses believed to have been eradicated in the United States. The poor do not have the resources to maintain water and septic systems. This is where funding from the infrastructure bill should go. Helping the invisible and housed poor.
The Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative will help communities access financing and technical assistance to improve wastewater infrastructure. EPA and USDA are launching the initiative in:
- Lowndes County, Alabama. The White Hall community has inadequate wastewater infrastructure. Local challenges include failing septic systems, straight pipes and inadequate centralized sewer capacity.
- Greene County, Alabama. Local challenges include failing septic systems and the use of straight pipes, resulting in raw sewage on the ground, surface water, and seepage into ground water. The rural nature of the county, geology (black belt soils) and economic conditions, has made centralized wastewater systems a challenge.
“Access to adequate wastewater infrastructure is a basic human right, but for too many of my constituents, generations of disinvestment have led to broken and failing wastewater systems that put the health of our communities at risk,” said U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (AL-07).
This joint initiative between the EPA and USDA will be instrumental in our fight to improve wastewater infrastructure for our most underserved communities and is part of the Rural Partners Network that introduces a new way of doing business: a collaboration among federal agencies meant to improve access to government resources, staffing and tools.
The Rural Partners Network puts federal staff on the ground to support designated, economically challenged communities. Known as “Community Liaisons,” these federal employees provide local leaders with the expertise to navigate federal programs. Community Liaisons help build relationships and identify additional resources to get the job done. In addition, the federal agencies designate key points of contact who focus specifically on rural strategies, improving visibility and attention to rural issues. It is hoped as their work progresses, the lessons learned will inform future federal rural policy development and investment strategies.