State eyes ‘once in lifetime’ opportunity to upgrade local water, sewer systems

By Betsy Z. Russell; Idaho Press

BOISE — The proposed budget for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality for next year shows something unusual: A 100.7% increase in total funds from this year. The reason: A “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make investments in infrastructure projects that will have an impact for generations to come,” according to state DEQ Director Jess Byrne.

Byrne presented the budget to the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Thursday, including proposals from Gov. Brad Little to spend hundreds of millions in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds over the next five years for major upgrades to city drinking and wastewater systems; closing old landfills; addressing contaminated, abandoned mine sites across the state; and more.

“When the ARPA dollars arrived, the first thing the governor said was, ‘I want to maximize these as long-term investments our kids and grandkids will benefit from,’” said Alex Adams, Little’s budget director. “As the guidance unfolded, it became clear that drinking and wastewater was one of those areas.”

The governor’s proposal would spend $60 million from those federal funds for drinking and wastewater grants next year, and a total of $300 million over five years.

“If you have good drinking water and wastewater systems, it will defray local property taxes or user fees, will allow communities to have planned growth, it will help our rural areas,” Adams said. “I think given the options for to use discretionary ARPA dollars, the governor saw this as an investment that will help generations for years to come throughout Idaho.”

The $300 million would be distributed through grants to local entities that need to make the upgrades. Byrne said a “tiered approach” is planned, “prioritizing small systems that can’t afford necessary upgrades.”

There’s plenty of both need and interest, Byrne told lawmakers. With word that the grants could be coming, the DEQ this year received 263 letters of interest from around the state, he said, up from the usual 70 or so. “And these 263 requested over $1.4 billion for water and wastewater projects,” he said.

The DEQ has been working closely with the Association of Idaho Cities, the Idaho Rural Water Association, engineers, city officials and others to get the word out to needy communities about the possible funding, and provided $1.2 million in planning grants to help communities develop funding requests.

“The funding must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026, which means construction would need to be completed,” Byrne said.

Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, co-chair of JFAC, said, “It would make a huge difference. We need to really investigate and look at it.”

He said he wants to make sure the funds are distributed fairly, and consider the plight of communities that have already taken out bonds to upgrade their systems. “Rural communities, I think, are high priorities, because they have the needs and don’t have the funding,” Youngblood said.

Johanna Bell, energy and environmental policy analyst for the Association of Idaho Cities, said, “Such a significant inflow of resources is desperately needed throughout Idaho.” She said the association’s members have been watching closely. “The need is there, let me just put it that way,” she said.

The proposed DEQ budget for next year also includes $70 million in ARPA funds over five years, starting with $1.4 million in the current year and $13.7 million next year, for environmental remediation around the state. That ranges from dealing with abandoned mine sites, to closing, sealing and monitoring old county landfills, to reducing nutrient loading into scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene in North Idaho that could trigger release of tons of hazardous heavy-metal mine wastes encased in sediments at the bottom of the lake.

Byrne noted that the final word on whether the federal funds can be spent will come from lawmakers; JFAC will start voting on agency budgets later this month. Budget bills approved by the joint committee also need passage in both the House and Senate and the governor’s signature to become law.

“Compared to our fiscal year 2022 appropriation, this is a significant increase to our budget overall,” Byrne said, “however, as I’ve highlighted, most of this is ARPA funding that would be just passed through DEQ to address community needs related to water, wastewater and contaminated sites.”

Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, said he was glad to see the plan to deal with contaminated abandoned mines sites. “That’s always been a concern of mine,” he said, “that these things are just sitting out there and there’s no responsible party other than us as a state.”

The plans include continued remediation at the Triumph Mine site, located about 6 miles southeast of Sun Valley. That mine produced lead, zinc and silver from 1882 to 1957, but after a 2005 bankruptcy, the state “acquired responsibility for managing legacy issues associated with contamination at the mine,” Byrne said.

Cleanup there had started in 1996, removing contaminated soils and tailings, installing large concrete plugs in the old mine tunnel, and piping contaminated wastewater to settling ponds, reducing the flow there from 200 gallons per minute to seven. There’s more work to come, including long-term stabilization and monitoring.

In state general funds, the governor’s proposed budget for DEQ for next year reflects a $1.8 million, 8% increase from this year to $24.2 million, including additional staff to work on contaminated sites, solid waste site analysis, and water quality sampling.

The governor also is recommending a $44 million transfer from the state general fund to the Water Pollution Control Account, which falls under DEQ, to serve as state matching funds for $253 million from the new federal infrastructure act that will be headed to Idaho over the next five years to boost existing state drinking water and wastewater revolving loan and grant programs. That’s on top of the ARPA funds.

Byrne said for every dollar of matching funds, “We get almost $6 in return to help communities.”

Another $20 million transfer from the state general fund would go to the Agriculture Best Management Practices Fund, which lawmakers created last year, to combine with landowner contributions to reduce pollution from farming and livestock production. Projects to be funded range from converting irrigation systems from flood-irrigation to pivot sprinklers; to providing off-stream watering areas for livestock; to streambank stabilization and protection.

Legislation currently pending this year would tag $5 million of that transfer specifically for environmental upgrades to confined animal feeding operations in Idaho. Byrne said, “We worked with the proponents of that legislation and do not have any concerns if that is what the Legislature decides to do.”

Byrne also reported that DEQ has completed its takeover of non-point source water pollution permitting from the federal EPA, which has been phased in over the last five years. “I’m proud to say we now have authority for that entire program,” he told lawmakers.

The budget plan also calls for tapping user fees from that program to add an additional permit writer, bringing the total number up to seven; DEQ inherited a backlog of permit applications from the EPA.

All new staffers being added at DEQ will fall within the currently allocated number of full-time employees, 379, which currently include 44 vacancies. Byrne said the department is struggling to fill some positions, including engineering positions. About half of the department’s employees work at its headquarters in Boise; the rest are spread across six regional offices.

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