Senators Express Concern Over Ag Budget Cuts

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators from Rural States sent a letter to President Donald Trump, copied to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, on Tuesday, May 30 that expressed concern over proposed budget cuts to USDA programs.

Led by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, 29 Democratic senators signed the letter. The letter singled out cuts to rural development and the proposed elimination of an account that pays for rural water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

The full text of the letter is below. 5.30.17 Letter to Trump on RD funding.

May 30, 2017

The Honorable Donald J. Trump

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, D.C. 20006

Cc:          The Honorable Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget

                The Honorable Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Dear President Trump,

We write today to raise concerns about your budget request to cut Farm Bill programs by $231 billion and to dramatically reduce or eliminate rural development programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These proposed cuts, combined with USDA’s reorganization plan, which would abolish the Under Secretary of Rural Development at USDA, would have significant negative impacts on rural America.

Small towns and rural communities embody many of our nation’s greatest strengths, and the people of these communities deserve every opportunity to raise their families with well-paying jobs and a high quality of life. Our small towns and rural communities, however, experience unique challenges in developing and maintaining infrastructure and providing high-quality health services and education. Understanding and responding to these unique challenges to help these communities create jobs and drive economic growth is the principal mission of USDA Rural Development.

Unfortunately, the fiscal year 2018 budget proposes drastic cuts to USDA Rural Development that undermine its ability to serve rural America. Although we are deeply concerned with many other aspects of the USDA budget, the focus of this letter is limited to USDA’s rural development mission. These reductions would undermine the ability of local communities to support rural home ownership; provide clean drinking and waste water systems; and promote access to critical services such as rural hospitals, police, and firefighters. If enacted, these cuts would have a damaging impact on rural communities throughout the country.

For example, zeroing out the USDA funding for water and wastewater infrastructure projects leaves small communities without access to the federal funds needed to address the $2.5 billion backlog for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage waste disposal, and emergency water assistance. Eliminating USDA’s small business programs leaves businesses with less access to capital, educational opportunities, entrepreneurial training, and technical support.  These programs have been credited with saving almost 800,000 jobs and have helped finance more than 107,000 businesses since 2009. And finally, the budget proposal jeopardizes critical rural broadband health service grants that provide communities with additional tools to help provide access to education and rural health care, including battling the opioid epidemic.  Simply put, cuts to these programs hinder the ability of rural America to see economic growth and development.

These cuts, coupled with the recently announced USDA reorganization, deepens our concern that the decisions made by this Administration will harm small towns and rural America.  While we applaud the establishment of an Under Secretary for Trade as required by the 2014 Farm Bill, we are concerned with the planned elimination of the Under Secretary of Rural Development. USDA officials have made it clear that there is no legal requirement to eliminate any of the Under Secretary positions at USDA in order to create an Under Secretary for Trade. Both agricultural trade and rural development functions at USDA deserve and require high-level, accountable, and singularly focused leadership to ensure their missions success. We do not believe that enhancing agricultural exports has to come with a demotion for the rural development activities.

Additionally, we are disappointed that USDA plans to implement the reorganization even before public comments are due, suggesting that USDA has no real plan to consider these comments and make any changes based on the comments.  USDA must carefully consider all comments received before the proposed reorganization is actually implemented.

We will continue to fight for rural America by rejecting these budget cuts, and we ask that you reconsider USDA’s plan and maintain the Under Secretary for Rural Development.  We believe that if we can work together, we can find a better way to respond to the unique needs of America’s small towns and rural communities.

We look forward to working with you and your Administration on these critical issues.

Sincerely,

The letter was signed by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Angus King (I-Maine), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Learn more about the impact of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service

Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule: 2 PM CDT June 1


Stage 2 Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule: 2 PM CDT June 1 Register Now

This webinar will review the Stage 1 Rule and the steps systems were required to take to move into the State 2 Rule. It will discuss the Initial Distribution System Evaluation options, compliance schedules, the final report and moving into the required compliance monitoring requirements.

About the Presenter
Dale Barrie has worked in the water and wastewater industry since 1975 beginning his career with his hometown of Gilbert. In 2004 he retired as the general manager of the Winterset Municipal Electric & Water Utilities and began work with the Iowa Rural Water Association providing onsite technical assistance to water systems in the state. Barrie is currently the as the Western Iowa Circuit Rider and has also served as the Training and Technical Assistance Specialist for IRWA.

Rural Water Assists Arizona Wastewater Plant with Bulked Sludge


TIERRA GRANDE, Ariz. – When the Wastewater Plant in Tierra Grande, Ariz. had bulked sludge interfering with the hydraulics of the system, they contacted the Rural Water Association of Arizona for assistance.

“The sludge had accumulated on the inlet side of the clarifier’s inlet baffled wall,” said Nathan Long, an EPA Wastewater Program Training Specialist with RWAA. “The system was short-circuiting through the open area in the baffled wall into the primary aeration basin.”

Bulking is common in small systems, especially when flow rates get low and the solids begin to settle out.

“This accumulation creates anaerobic layers of sludge that will continue to build up into think biomass unless it is physically removed,” Long explained.

Long probed the bulked sludge and found areas of accumulation as much as 12 feet thick and four feet wide. The first step to returning the wastewater plant to normal operation was to remove these massive layers of accumulated sludge in the baffled zone.

After removing the sludge, the next step would be to make repairs and upgrades to prevent the sludge from accumulating again.

“The baffled zone has an air diffuser that should keep solids in suspension during periods of low flow rate,” Long said. “The installed diffuser is not operating.”

Long also recommended installation of additional air diffusers that can be run continuously or on a preventative maintenance schedule.

“A major item that needs to be functioning correctly is the baffle zone’s scum trough,” Long said.

The scum trough provides a mechanism to return bulked sludge to the treatment process instead of accumulating or short circuiting into the aeration basins. The combined improvements should return the plant to normal operations and directly reduce the amount of solids that are pumped from the facility every year.

“I will be available for future discussions,” Long said. “As well as be there to help with any work needed to accomplish these goals.”

NRWA Hosts Live Chat on ServLine Water Loss Insurance June 14


DUNCAN, Okla. – The National Rural Water Association hosted a live chat on the ServLine insurance offered as part of the association’s Products and Services Portfolio at 2 p.m. CDT on June 14. Utilities interested in learning more about how ServLine protects systems and customers from financial loss can log in to ask questions and discuss options. Those interested can sign up for an e-mail reminder below.

ServLine is a new and unique insurance program that will cover water lost with no deductible, repair or replace a customer’s water and sewer line in a timely fashion. It is designed exclusively for water systems to protect both the utility and customers from financial loss.

 

Live Blog ServLine Line Break Insurance Conversations
 

Sustainable Utility Management: 12p.m. CDT May 25


Sustainable Utility Management: 12p.m. CDT May 25  Register Now

Everyone talks about the importance of sustainability these days. But what does that word really mean for water and wastewater utilities? The Workshop in a Box is a collaborative effort between USDA and USEPA. The Workshop gives you the tools to assess your strengths and weaknesses using the Ten Attributes of Effectively Managed Utilities. The Cliff Notes version of the Ten attributes can be found at http://www.watereum.org/resources/interactive-primer/ten-attributes/. We will discuss the attributes and walk you through any easy way to see your utility’s strengths and weaknesses. The webinar will also teach you how to develop an improvement plan and an action plan to address the weaknesses you identify. All materials used in the webinar are available at https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/services/sustainable-management-tools.

About the Presenter

Amy Swann

Rural Water Loan Helps Utility Acquire Grant, Comply with State Law

THREE RIVERS, Calif. – When California’s Proposition 50 created new state regulations for drinking water treatment, the North Kaweah Mutual Water Company found itself in need of a $1.99 million upgrade to meet the new requirements. The utility of 80 connections could apply for a state grant for the project, but they still needed funds to generate the plans and engineering to even apply for the grant. That’s when NKMWC turned to the National Rural Water Association’s Rural Water Loan Fund for a bridge loan to begin the process.

To comply with the regulations, North Kaweah would essentially have to be rebuilt, including three new wells, a chlorination system, water storage tanks, pumping stations and a new distributions system.  It was a project that would be impossible for a small utility with a volunteer board to accomplish without assistance.

“Without this bridge loan between conception and funding, we could not have undertaken the project,” Treasurer Susan Darsey said in a letter. “The Rural Water loan was critical to the successful completion of our construction project.”

NKMWC started trying to locate the funding in 2011, and quickly discovered more funding was needed just to navigate the complexities of engineering and agency oversight.

“We surely didn’t think it would be a ten-year project, but for a volunteer board working on such a large project and with California state agencies involved, we are proud of our success,” Darsey said.

NKMWC completed the project and finished repaying its loan in 2017.

“Thank you on behalf of our water users, who now have a compliant water system providing us potable water and fire protection,” Darsey said. “Your value to all rural residents is immense.”

Learn more about the impact of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service

Energy Efficiency in Water/Wastewater Systems: 1 p.m. CDT May 18


Energy Efficiency in Water/Wastewater Systems: 1 p.m. CDT May 18  Register Now

As many water utility operators know energy is a huge part of the operation budget and it doesn’t appear to be getting cheaper. The purpose of this webinar is to give water utility operators and management the tools to conduct an energy audit of their facilities. To conduct an energy audit one must understand the importance of documenting a baseline of energy use for the facility and specific equipment, along with how to understand the electric bill. The instructor will discuss numerous energy saving measures that can be completed to save energy and money. The students will learn the math needed to determine what equipment costs to run and use this math to determine approximate savings from an energy saving project. The course will end with an example of how to finance an energy efficient project with the funds saved on energy.

About the Presenter:

Walter Higgins is an Environmental Scientist with the US Environmental Protection Agency Mid-Atlantic Region. He had a BS in Agronomy and Environmental Science from Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture and has been a Penn. Certified Wastewater Operator Class A, 1, 2, 3 since 2014. Higgins has approximately 10 years’ experience as a Soil Scientist for Montgomery County Health Department (PA), an Environmental Engineering firm, and an Excavating company. Various duties from public outreach on water quality, to on-lot sewage system site evaluation, designs and installation, and heavy equipment operator. Approximately 4 years’ experience as a Project Officer overseeing Delaware’s Federal Capitalization grant that funds the Delaware Water Pollution Revolving Loan Program. Also, has overseen various grants to local communities for wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water improvement projects.

NRWA meets with EPA Administrator Pruitt


TULSA, Okla. – On Friday May 5, National Rural Water Association officers and staff met with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in Tulsa, Okla. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce the association to the Administrator and offer the association’s expertise and experience as a resource in regulatory affairs as they relate to rural and small community water and wastewater systems.

The discussion centered around regulatory fixes as identified by NRWA membership to include consecutive system issues and Total Maximum Daily Load regulations. The Administrator stressed that the agency was in the review process of regulatory issues and encouraged the association to formally submit comments. The NRWA representatives encouraged the agency to view rural and small systems as protectors of public health and the environment as opposed to a regulatory burden.

“The meeting was very informative and the open discussion was very meaningful,” said NRWA President Steve Fletcher, who manages Washington County Water company. “Hopefully this meeting is the start of a collaborative process that results in more affordability consideration in the regulatory review and processes.”

Senior Vice President Steve Wear, Manager of Conway County Regional Water in Arkansas; Vice President David Baird, District Coordinator, Sussex Conservation District in Delaware; Treasurer John O’Connell, Chief Operator, Dryden WWTP, New York; and Secretary Kent Watson, Manager Wickson Creek Special Utility District in Bryan, Texas also attended the meeting.

National Rural Water Association Releases Statement on 2017 Budget Agreement

DUNCAN, Okla. – The National Rural Water Association, the nation’s largest water utility organization with over 31,000 rural and small community members, applauds the federal budget, now that it has been signed by the President, for its support of USDA Water and Waste infrastructure funding.

The budget agreement includes $570 million for rural and small community water infrastructure funding throughout the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service rural development water grant and loan initiatives.  This funding level will support over $1 billion in rural and small community water projects next year and demonstrates Congress’ strong support for this important national initiative.

The USDA water infrastructure initiative is rated as one of the most cost-effective and beneficial programs in the Federal government.  Approximately 70% of the dollars spent are loans which are repaid to the federal government with interest and 30% of the funding is distributed as grants that are needed to make specific projects affordable in neglected and impoverished areas.

That is the key to the value of this initiative: when we refer to water projects, what we are talking about is people’s health, rural communities’ viability and a clean environment. Drinking water and wastewater projects are the first-line of defense in protection of public health and environmental quality in rural areas. There is currently a funding backlog of over $2 billion in rural water projects needing funding to improve the lives of rural Americans.

“We are thankful for the strong support of Congress for this vital public health, environmental and economic development initiative that was demonstrated in the final Congressional budget agreement,” said NRWA President Steve Fletcher, General Manager of the Washington County Water Company in Nashville, Illinois. Most U.S. water utilities are small; approximately 92 percent of the country’s 50,366 community drinking water systems serve communities with fewer than 10,000 people and 80 percent of the country’s 16,255 wastewater systems serve fewer than 10,000 people.  “Rural and small communities must continue to support their rural water associations that allow us to be heard in Congress on critical issues like funding for USDA rural water infrastructure.”

Learn more about the impact of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service

Oklahoma Utility an Example of What RUS, Rural Water Can Accomplish

AMBER, Okla. – In a metal building west of the small Oklahoma town of Amber, Paul Jones is gathering his staff around a wall filled with color-coded pipe maps and a whiteboard scrawled with the day’s priorities. The Rural Water District has undergone tremendous changes, fueled by a combination of hard work and USDA loan Financing.

“When I got here seven years ago, the infrastructure was in bad shape,” explained Jones, manager of Grady County Rural Water District #6. “The utility hadn’t received that level of maintenance it required.”

Grady #6 was also a purchasing utility, buying their water from the nearby City of Chickasha. The arrangement had created two problems. First, Chickasha was at a lower elevation, so Grady #6 was having to pump all its water uphill, and second, the small utility was responsible for water quality that was out of their control.

“We had no control over what Chickasha did to their water, but we still had to sample and we could still be fined if they were out of compliance,” said Sharron Garrett, the utility office manager. “Your destiny is in someone else’s hands.”

The small system needed to adapt, to change, but it was facing many of the problems common to rural utilities. With a staff of six and 1,464 connections, Grady #6 had to maintain over 700 miles of pipe over 600 square miles of territory. The system supplies water to four different school districts and covers most of northern Grady County. The demands on the system showed no signs of slowing, either, with the population growing 9% over the past 15 years.

Grady #6 need to make improvements, but those improvements required money.

“It’s very difficult for a rural system to raise the capital to make big changes,” said Garrett, who started working at Grady #6 with her husband when the utility was started in 1975 and had 365 connections.

“Our rate payers simply can’t afford commercial or private financing at the prevailing rates and terms,” Jones said.

The utility started by making smaller changes, like making water loss a primary focus.

“When I started, water loss was around 45%,” Jones said. “Right now we average 25% water loss, but when we get to 10%, that’s when we’ve really worked on water loss.”

The utility replaced it’s neglected valves and installing line meters that measured flow through certain zones of the system.

“We can isolate different parts of the distribution system and see how much water is going into that area at different times,” Jones said, pointing to the color-coded utility map on the wall. “When you see a lot of water going into an area at 1 a.m. when everyone is asleep, then you know you have a problem. Once we identify a problem in a certain area, we go in to locate and repair any leaks.”

The approach has been so successful that it has even drawn attention from the US EPA. The Oklahoma Rural Water Association arranged for Dr. Peter Grevatt, director, and Becki Clark, deputy director, from the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water to tour Grady #6.

“Grady Rural Water #6 was able to successfully overcome their challenges by implementing innovative yet practical, cost effective solutions to help the system deliver high quality water that will improve the health, economy and security of their community,” Dr. Grevatt said after touring the facility.

Jones appreciates the attention his team has received from their approach to water loss, and he sees it as a greater concern in the future.

“Finding good water is hard,” he said. “With the rules and regulations regarding potable water growing tighter all the time, keeping what you’ve produced is very important.”

The office whiteboard with the day’s tasks and priorities still has “Water Loss” written across the top. It is part of an effort to maintain the progress the utility has gained. Grady #6 has started the process of identifying pipe that needs to be up-sized or replaced. The system now also has a regular maintenance schedule that includes everything from exercising valves to mowing around lines and wells.

“We’re trying to get full life out of the equipment,” Jones said. “It all works together: we can prevent damage to our lines and if you have to repair a leak at 2 a.m. it helps if you’re not in head-high Bermuda grass.”

Funding from the USDA Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program helped Grady #6 get the funding to starting making bigger investments in the utility. A $12.8 million loan provided the capital to install 75 miles of water lines, drill two water wells and erect three water towers.

One of those towers is an impressive 110-foot-tall, 1.4 million gallon water tower near the town of Minco. The fresh white tower was completed in August of 2013 and stands near a field of tall, slow-spinning wind turbines. The tower is one of eight that store water pumped from the utility’s new two new wells. The news wells and tower are part of the effort to transition Grady #6 from purchasing water to producing its own.

“Our board has been very inspirational,” Jones said. “They had the foresight to pursue this.”

With the water contracts with Chickasha expiring in 2021, in addition to problems with pumping and quality, the Grady #6 board began exploring other water sources. The utility found a plentiful supply northwest corner of their system, near the small town of Cogar. The utility brought two wells on-line, with a third under development.

The change has created several advantages for Grady #6, including moving from a rates structure that purchased system water at $3 per 1,000 gallons to producing ground water for $.35 per 1,000 gallons.

“Since we changed water sources, customers have been very happy with the taste,” said James Calhoun, a systems operations specialist. “I bottle it and take it home.”

Because of the elevation difference, the utility no longer has to pump water up-hill.

“Cogar is a slightly higher elevation, so most of the system is gravity fed now,” Jones said. “We went from needing eight pumps to needing one.”

The elevation also gives the utility some resistance against natural disasters.

“We have generators at the wells, so we can maintain service, even if an ice storm knocks out all the power,” Jones explained. “Unless a tornado directly hits the towers, we’re pretty much covered.”

One change at Grady #6, a change Jones considers critical to continued success, has nothing to do with new equipment or infrastructure. That change is improved pay and time-off for his employees.

“People in the water industry don’t get enough praise,” he said. “They’ll fix a water leak in the middle of the night, and that doesn’t get noticed.”

“Just last week we had a leak where we started at 11:45 and we didn’t go home until 12:30 the next day,” Calhoun said.

“Most of that time was spent sanding in a hole full of mud,” added Shawn Ortiz, system operations specialist.

“That was a fun day,” joked Morgan Britton and Matt Sierra, two members of the utility crew.

Jones hopes to keep improving the pay and benefits for his staff in the future, since he considers them as integral to the utility’s success as their new water source or focus on water loss.

“These guys are the driving force behind everything. They’re the ones out in the field with their boots on,” he said.

Learn more about the impact of USDA’s Rural Utilities Service