$20M in unspent drinking water funds for NM
By Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press
5:20 p.m. MDT September 26, 2015
ALBUQUERQUE — A network of old cast-iron pipes still carries drinking water to businesses and homes along historic Route 66 in the eastern New Mexico city of Tucumcari. Some of the pipes need to be replaced, just like the water tank that has been out of service since failing two years ago.
Down the road in Estancia, residents have their fingers crossed. They have only one drinking water well to meet their needs and those of the more than 900 inmates who are housed at a private prison on the outskirts of town.
“If that well goes down, it puts us in a predicament,” said Michelle Dunlap, who serves as the town’s deputy clerk.
New Mexico faces an estimated $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next two decades, and a review by The Associated Press shows more than $20 million in federally appropriated funds that are available to help cities and towns pay for improvements to pipelines, treatment plants and storage tanks remains unspent.
While state officials have been whittling down that amount over the last five years, it’s still enough to rank the state among the top ten when it comes to the percentage of money that goes unused.
The state also leads the nation in the share of money set aside through the loan program for expenses other than actual infrastructure, such as salaries or other administrative costs.
The federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund allows states to set aside up to 31 percent of the money they receive for operating and administrative costs. The goal is to help states comply with federal drinking water requirements.
New Mexico’s program is unapologetic about receiving the highest percentage of “set-asides” among the states — 30 percent of its overall funding. Program officials say the money is needed to serve smaller and often poor water systems and the maximum set-aside is requested each year.
“We’re just maximizing what’s available,” said Stephanie Stringer, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau.
Much of the so-called “set aside” money goes to pay the salaries of state employees and contractors. Nationally, more than $2.7 billion has been used for set-asides since 1996, the year Congress created the revolving fund.
Relying on that money to pay for ongoing operating expenses at local water systems carries risks. If Congress cuts the revolving fund, as it is considering doing, cash-strapped states might have to find other ways to pay those costs.
The other problem, Stringer said, is there are simply not enough staff and technical experts to do the work needed before the money can be doled out. For example, water systems must have their annual audits in order before being approved to take on debt under the drinking water loan program.
“There are tons of little requirements that are just slow to get addressed for some of these smaller water systems that need help,” she said.
New Mexico has received more than $172 million through the loan program. That has increased by more than one quarter since 2011, when the state was sliding into what would become an unprecedented drought in which stretches of major rivers went dry and reservoirs fell to record low levels.
Many of the problems plaguing local water systems stemmed more from years of neglect, but officials said the drought helped to exacerbate the challenge of providing clean, sustainable drinking water in numerous communities around the state.
“It all came to the forefront, but these problems are ongoing almost all the time,” Stringer said. “We’re trying to get communities to be proactive and think about the sustainability of their water resources and how they want to use it and how much value they want to put on it.”
State water managers are hoping for a paradigm shift.
“We want people to really understand what it takes to get that water to come out of their tap any time they want it and to have some buy-in and responsibility toward contributing toward helping in that effort,” Stringer said.
State and federal funding has helped Tucumcari replace many of its old, leaky pipes over the last 20 years. The work would have been impossible otherwise, said Charlie Sandoval, who oversees an operating budget of about $40,000 a year as superintendent of the water department.
The city is seeking $1.4 million to replace the failed water tank, which was built in 1959. It’s one of more than a dozen projects on the state’s most recent list of priorities for drinking water loan funding. In an effort to move the money more quickly, the state accepts applications year round and reviews and prioritizes them each quarter.
Requests for the latest round of priority projects top $47 million, with nearly half of those coming from water systems that are classified as severely disadvantaged.
“Rural America is a great place to be; people love to live in rural America. But these are important projects and small municipalities are dependent on this,” said Dunlap, the Estancia deputy clerk.