State officials discuss water infrastructure funding

  • Participants at Wednesday’s discussion on water infrastructure funding, which was organized by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. Screenshot

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2021 6:42:28 PM

State and local officials met remotely Wednesday night to discuss the importance of locating funding to support local and regional water suppliers and treatment facilities.

“While we often don’t think enough about our water and wastewater infrastructure, and it’s sometimes not the most exciting topic on the table, I think it’s easy to agree that the work of local and regional wastewater utilities has never been more critical,” said Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Wednesday evening’s meeting, which was organized by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, offered an opportunity for state officials to share the various grant and loan programs available to municipalities to fund water and wastewater infrastructure. The program was co-planned by the offices of Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, Sen. Adam Hinds, D- Pittsfield, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

“This year we experienced a severe drought and the second severe drought we’ve seen,” Theoharides said. “It really tested the commonwealth’s local water suppliers during a time when they were already feeling really tested.”

She added that droughts are “likely to become more frequent and more severe” as the climate changes, “which underscores the importance of taking action now to be sure we have resilient water suppliers and treatment facilities.”

Representatives from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented on the various programs available to municipalities. The first was by Juan Vega, of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, who provided information on the MassWorks Infrastructure Program.

“It’s a highly competitive grant program … offering a very flexible source of capital funds to cities and towns,” he said. “Mainly to support housing and job growth throughout the commonwealth.”

The program receives about 100 applications each year, he said, and the department can support 30 to 40 of those applications.

Vega introduced a new application process, Community One Stop for Growth, which launched in January and will begin with the fiscal year 2022 grant round. The new application process provides a single portal and collaborative review for several state grant programs.

“We’re going to be looking at all of the applications along the development continuum,” Vega said of Community One Stop for Growth. “What we’re asking, especially as you think about your water infrastructure needs, is to think about where you may be and where your project is in the life cycle of development, and then to put energy into trying to apply and look for funding at that stage that you’re at.”

Other programs discussed included the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program through the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs; the State Revolving Fund through the state Department of Environmental Protection; the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program through MEMA; and finally, Rural Development assistance through the USDA.

Examples of projects funded by the different programs were shared, including pump station electrical controls that were relocated in Shelburne Falls, so a new generator could be installed. The Shelburne Falls Fire District constructed a building to house the controls.

“We were able to move that electrical system up the hill … out of harm’s way,” explained Jen Lerch, director of business and community programs with USDA.

The presentation portion was followed by a question-and-answer session, during which attendees asked questions on public versus private water districts, the eligibility of certain projects for a particular grant and the competitiveness of various programs.

Deerfield Selectboard member Trevor McDaniel brought up the issue of sludge, asking whether there are any options regarding the increasing expense to transport sludge from the treatment plant in South Deerfield to Lowell — the only place in the state currently accepting it.

“It’s a real liability for … small facilities,” he said.

Stephanie Cooper, deputy commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, said her department is “very much aware” of the issue.

“We recognize this is a huge problem, and ultimately solving it is key to the future of our communities and certainly the viability of wastewater treatment at all,” she said, adding that the state is participating in a regional study the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission is convening, which will examine sludge costs around the region and look at potential solutions.

“We, at the state level, know we need to help figure out what the solution is,” Cooper said.

Before ending the meeting, Blais and Comerford thanked the participants and everyone involved in making the meeting possible.

“I’m just so grateful to be really down deep into these issues that we don’t tend to talk about very often, but they are so, so important to our local municipalities,” Blais said. “And I’m so grateful to our state and federal partners for being here tonight to walk us through these potential funding solutions for our communities.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne




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