By James Sturch, Arkansas Senator

The state Natural Resources Commission has awarded $270 million in grants for 157 drinking water and wastewater projects in 58 counties.
Work will begin in 2023 on the projects and they must be completed before the end of 2026. Money for construction comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, a massive federal emergency funding law meant to help state and local communities recover from the economic impact of the Covid pandemic.
The governor appointed a steering committee to determine how best to spend the more than $1.5 billion in federal relief funds coming to Arkansas. A working group within the steering committee focused specifically on water and infrastructure needs. It conducted a survey of needs and garnered more than 1,400 responses that identified about $5.2 billion in needs.
When legislators heard from local water officials, several officials said that it was unreasonable to expect the entire list of projects to be funded.
However, they urged legislators to quickly create a grant program to address the most pressing needs, and to allow construction to begin before inflation cut more deeply into their spending power.
The approved projects include $135 million for 105 projects for clean drinking water systems that serve 170,000 customers. The median household income for those customers is $34,218 a year.
The remaining $135 million will be spent on 52 wastewater projects that will serve 283,000 customers. The median household income for those customers is $42,533 a year.
According to an official with the Natural Resources Commission, the wastewater projects will help purify 162 million gallons of wastewater every day.
Some entities applied for both a drinking water grant and a wastewater grant, and 14 systems received a grant in both categories. In all, 119 entities applied for grants.
Of the 105 clean drinking water projects, 22 will extend service to areas that now are not served by a water system, 43 projects are designed to reduce the use of groundwater and 63 projects will help local water systems comply with clean water laws.
Of the 52 wastewater projects, six will extend service to areas that now lack service and 21 will improve water quality in waterways that are now classified as impaired. Forty-two projects will improve water quality in watersheds used for drinking water, resulting in improvements to the public health of the community.
Forty-four projects will reduce nutrients in waterways, such as fertilizer runoff from farms and food processing plants.
For most of the applications, the local water system must match the grant funds by putting up 25 percent of the costs of the projects.
The Commission compiled a waiting list, in the event that grants are not awarded due to an applicant failing to comply with conditions, such as missing deadlines.
Only a few applicants received the maximum award of $5 million.
In July the legislature’s Joint Committees on City, County and Local Affairs heard from managers of water and wastewater systems about the need to finance infrastructure projects.
In September the full Legislative Council voted to dedicate the funding to water projects, and directed the Natural Resources Commission to set up an application process. The Commission received 882 applications for $1.3 billion in grants.