April 23, 2014

New program funds watershed improvements with utility funds

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission has approved a new way to fund water quality programs using funding that once was reserved for utility plant improvements. Patti Cale-Finnegan of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says there will be 15-million dollars available each year.

“The idea is to create this new funding source for practices that protect water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. And it’s a unique funding source because it’s using revenues from the sewer systems of cities and other utilities to finance projects in the watershed,” Cale-Finnegan says.

Until the law was changed in 2009, fees collected from city utilities could only be spent on utility improvements, and not on watershed projects. Cale-Finnegan explains how the “Water Resources Restoration Sponsored Projects” will work.

“A city or another wastewater utility that has taken a loan through the clean water state revolving fund, will borrow and additional amount for a watershed project and we will lower the interest rate,” Cale-Finnegan explains. “So basically, the rate payers, the people who pay their sewer bills — will be paying the same amount that they would have been paying on that loan.”

That means the cities will get what amounts to two projects for the price of one. Cale-Finnegan says the program starts with identifying water quality problems in the watershed. “And so that could be a variety of things, it could be inside the city limits, it could be outside in the rural areas,” Cale-Finnegan says.

“So it’s really up to those local decision makers to decide what are their priorities, what are their problems and what practices do they need to implement to solve those problems.” A pilot project with the City of Dubuque matched a wastewater treatment upgrade with a sponsored project to repave alleys with special material that allows rain to soak into the pavement rather than running off to local streams.

Cale-Finnegan says that’s just one example of a new way to address sources of water pollution. “This program really offers communities a chance to think about what water resources do they really value and what do they want to protect. And so the projects don’t have to be immediately associated with their wastewater treatment, so they can really look more broadly,” Cale-Finnegan says.

Application information is available at: www.iowasrf.com. Cale-Finnegan says they will be working with local governments to explain the program to them and help them apply for funding.