Federal funds for water projects are just a fraction of what Arizona says it needs

Photo by Ted Shaffrey/AP/Shutterstock: Workers replace old lead pipes with copper at a building in Newark, New Jersey, in 2021. Some critics say Arizona is getting more for replacing lead pipes in the under the federal infrastructure bill than other states that need it more, but Arizona officials say they need everything they’re getting and more.

By Ryan Knappenberger/Cronkite News

WASHINGTON — Arizona will receive $109.5 million this year from the federal infrastructure bill to improve the state’s water supply systems — a fraction of the $1.4 billion list of needs that state officials say they have.

But even at that level, some critics say Arizona is getting more than its fair share of its share of the funds — for replacing lead pipes — compared to other states with thousands more pipes to replace.

The bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, approved last fall, includes $50.9 million for replacing lead pipes in Arizona, as well as $13.6 million million to address PFAS contamination in the state and $32.3 million for other projects. This is in addition to a base grant of $12 million given to the state by the Environmental Protection Agency.

State officials have welcomed the money, which they say was badly needed: They point to Arizona’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA), which has received 34 requests from local governments from the State requesting more than $1.4 billion water supply projects in the current fiscal year.

These projects represent “an order of magnitude greater than the IIJA’s currently available funding … and the needs are growing,” said Caroline Oppleman, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, in an e-mail. mail.

Of the 34 projects requested, 27 relate to general water infrastructure projects, such as the construction of new water pumping stations in Prescott, new wells in Bullhead City, the connection of water systems in Twin Peaks, etc. The estimated cost of the 27 proposals is $1.3 billion – for which the state expects to receive $44.9 million under the infrastructure bill.

The remaining seven applications include three proposals to clean up contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – PFAS, so-called “eternal chemicals” that the EPA proposed last month to designate as hazardous substances. The chemical has been detected in wells around Luke and Davis-Monthan Air Force bases.

Most of the state money is for the remaining four projects, inventorying lead service lines in drinking water systems for possible future replacement in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson and Payson. These will cost an estimated total of $31.9 million, far less than the $50.9 million the state is expected to receive.

But this is only the first year. Lindsey Jones, senior program officer at WIFA, said in an email that the agency plans to use the full federal funding of $50.9 million for lead pipe projects like more communities submit proposals for the remainder of this fiscal year.

Arizona has approximately 12,000 lead pipes currently in service. But critics of the EPA’s funding formula note that Arizona’s needs are small compared to states like Illinois, which has about 679,292 lead utility lines, and Ohio, which has about 650,000.

Arizona is the 10th lowest among states for the number of pipes, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the NRDC notes that Illinois is set to receive $106.6 million for lead service line projects, just over double Arizona’s allotment, despite having 50 times as many problem pipes.

NRDC senior policy advocate Cyndi Roper said that means Illinois gets $151 per service line, while Arizona gets $4,238.

She blamed the disparity on the use of a 2015 survey by the EPA, which determined what each state needed to improve its water infrastructure. The survey is supposed to be updated every four years, but this update was delayed in 2019 and again in 2020 by the pandemic.

Roper said the next distribution cycle could be made fairer if the EPA updates the survey to better reflect each state’s needs.

“We want them to act as quickly as possible because we don’t want them to miss the deadline to get the formula right for the next allocation,” Roper said. This next round of funding would be for fiscal year 2024, starting next July.

The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on the NRDC’s report on the funding formula.

Oppleman said ADEQ agrees that using the EPA survey to “distribute funds to states in defined categories misses the mark.” She suggested that the funding be made more flexible so that states can use it according to their needs rather than tying it directly to specific projects, such as replacing lead pipes.

She pointed to the fact that the $13.6 million earmarked for PFAS cleanup projects falls far short of the $80.5 million requested. Oppleman said PFAS is “a much larger scale concern in terms of Arizona’s need for resources.”

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