Arkansas officials are calling for American Rescue Plan funds to be used for water, wastewater needs

Officials say there are between $4 billion and $6 billion worth of upgrades and changes needed for Arkansas’ water and wastewater infrastructure, but the issue is an afterthought when it comes to access to American Rescue Plan funds for projects.

City leaders, heads of utility companies, engineering firms and others spoke Wednesday at the Joint Committee on City, County and Local Affairs about the need to use American Rescue Plan funds to meet the state’s water infrastructure concerns.

“What we want is a commitment that there will be a plan, a clear plan, that our industry can follow,” said Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities and past president of the Arkansas Water and Wastewater Managers Association. “Any civilization does not last or thrive without access to clean water and wastewater.”

Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward said the Water and Wastewater Working Group’s needs assessment identified more than 1,400 projects that would cost more than $5 billion in communities and rural areas across the state.

“We took those submissions and put them on a map, and it’s the entire state,” Wes Ward told lawmakers. “It’s not regionally specific, it’s the entire state struggling with water and wastewater needs.”

Wes Ward said the way the system works is a project is submitted to a working group or through an online portal. It must get approval from the Arkansas Cares Act Steering Committee before it can be considered for funding.

Officials from across the state told committee members about dire water needs in some cities, aging infrastructure, underutilized rest stops and more.

“Time is of the essence,” said Dennis Sternberg, executive director for the Arkansas Rural Water Association.

The water issue has taken on greater importance of late as dry conditions and extreme heat have led some counties and cities to demand that residents ration their water.

The Fayetteville Utilities Department recently asked customers east of Fayetteville and Goshen to adjust their water usage, according to a city release.

Sternberg said Conway County Regional Water has reached its water capacity due to the lack of rain and extreme heat and discussed the need to conserve water.

“What they are proposing is the installation of a parallel line that will increase their capacity by 44 percent,” he said. “That’s an urgent need. The drought will break, but it won’t go away.”

Michael Clayton, director of the North Little Rock Wastewater Utility and president of the Arkansas Water and Wastewater Managers Association, said one of the themes of the organization’s recent conference was the need to access American Rescue Plan funds for improvements to water and wastewater.

“We are eagerly awaiting guidance from the state,” he said.

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law in March 2021 as part of an effort to help the US recover from the economic and health impacts of the covid-19 pandemic.

Heath Ward said there was a buzz around the industry when American Rescue’s plans were announced. Many saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime infusion of dollars into the state, leading industry members to get “ready-made” projects sent to the state in hopes that its steering committee would send of bailout funds on their way.

“That just didn’t happen,” he said. “Many of these plans were submitted in the fall of 2021 and we haven’t seen a single dollar from the state. even for projects that say we can get 30% of the money locally or 50% of the money locally.”

Sen. said. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, when the American Rescue Plan Act went into effect, the funds were meant to help with needs related to the covid-19 pandemic.

“There are four buckets that are specifically identified as areas where ARPA dollars should be spent. One of those buckets is water and sewer,” he said. “So far, Arkansas has spent ARPA dollars on broadband infrastructure but has yet to spend money on water and sewer projects.”

Stubblefield said the American Rescue Plan funds must be spent by 2026.

“This means that the engineering work must be done, the projects must go to bid and the local funds to assist the projects must be secured, the construction must begin and be completed, and all of this should be done under the backdrop of labor shortages and inflation,” he said. “That means the longer it takes, the fewer projects can be completed and the more expensive the project.”

Heath Ward said it seems other priorities have been set.

“We hear that there is a committee, but we see no action or no real plan and rumors that all the money will go to broadband. We hear that rumor over and over again,” he said. “It’s nice to sit in the woods and watch your high-speed internet when you drink bottled water and your commode doesn’t flush.”

Sternberg agreed.

“Water is the essence of life, broadband is not,” he said. “I understand the need for technology, but we have to go back to common sense sometimes.”

Lawmakers asked utility company representatives if there was a specific amount of money they were looking for when it came to these projects.

Heath Ward said what the group is asking for isn’t exactly money, but a way to submit project ideas so that those who are eligible can get approved.

“What we’re trying to do here right now is get to a point where we can get some numbers to work with, knowing that it’s not going to meet everyone’s needs, but right now there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “No information.”

Some lawmakers criticized what they described as skewed priorities when it came to how American Rescue funds were used.

“I watched us give away $155 million for contact tracing, which was a total failure,” Stubblefield said. “I watched us do virtual training for schools where we had 38% or 39% participation rates. No one used them.

“We’re throwing money — millions and hundreds of millions of dollars — but still neglecting some of the most important and critical things for human life.”

Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, a member of the steering committee that approves the use of American Rescue Plan funds, said she has not seen a single request for water projects presented.

“It’s not because the steering committee said we don’t want to do it. It’s because we have never been presented with anything,” she said. “We haven’t gotten around to saying yes or no yet.”

Cavenaugh said the executive branch is calling the steering committee meeting.

“There is some frustration I would say — I can’t speak for everyone on the steering committee — that we don’t have meetings as often as we thought we would,” he said.

Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, also sits on the steering committee and agreed that there is a high level of frustration from the legislative side that nothing will come to them before it receives approval from the Gov’s office. Asa Hutchinson.

“All we’re doing is rubber stamping it,” Caldwell said. “The only reason it comes before the committee is because the law requires it. … Nothing came to the steering committee that the governor did not want to present to the steering committee.”

“I would recommend to our legislators here that if we can’t get these water projects brought to the steering committee, shut down the spending and move the money over until the next legislative session and the next administration that is coming in January where we are . some of these things can be done,” Caldwell added.

Wes Ward pointed out that the state provides emergency loans to repair critical equipment needs if necessary.

Rep. said. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, even though some small towns have raised their millage and rates, they still can’t complete some of these infrastructure upgrades on their own because of the price associated with the project.

Wes Ward agreed. He said there are areas that can afford the rate increase, but others need money for clean water and can’t afford it, and they also can’t afford the rate increase.

“We have had two situations in the last two weeks where we have given emergency loans to rural areas that cannot afford the increase,” he said. “We do emergency loans to make them work on a day-to-day basis.

Hutchinson said he established working groups on June 29, 2021, to develop ideas, recommendations and plans for consideration by the American Rescue Plan Steering Committee. The Republican governor said the working groups consist of water and other infrastructure projects, broadband and workforce and human capital development.

“I have made it abundantly clear that using American Rescue Plan funds for water projects is a priority of mine,” Hutchinson said in an emailed statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I continue to monitor various project proposals for the ARPA Steering Committee, and I am confident that water and irrigation projects will be part of those proposals in the future.”

Hutchinson said he created the Water and Wastewater working group within the Arkansas Rescue Plan Steering Committee and directed them to assess and measure those needs and make recommendations for funding.

“The state received the second tranche of ARPA funding in June of this year in the amount of $836 million,” he said. “I had a meeting on June 15, 2022, with Secretaries Walther, Ward, Hurst, and Preston on prioritizing the allocation of funds for the projects submitted by the working groups.”

Hutchinson said he hoped to recommend funding for water and wastewater system assistance last year, but new strains of covid-19 require additional resources.

“I have asked the steering committee to meet as soon as possible and make recommendations on funding,” he said. “The Water and Wastewater Working Group has developed eligibility criteria and is developing an implementation plan to move quickly once funding becomes available.”

Stubblefield said now is the time to come up with a plan to allocate American Rescue Plan funds for water and wastewater projects.

“That should be a priority,” he said. “We need to focus on the basics. We have until 2026 to spend these funds. The longer we take away — I’ve seen it before — it never ends.”