Alabama officials have opened the floodgates, sending a tidal wave of federal funding to address some of the state’s most dire water and sewer infrastructure needs.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management announced that it has approved sending $348 million in federal grants and loans to “repair and upgrade crumbling, malfunctioning and overwhelmed water and sewer systems in Alabama,” according to a news release from the department.
“These funds are going to communities with the most critical needs, such as in the Black Belt, that would not otherwise be able to afford the repairs and upgrades on their own,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said in the release. “These projects are going to have a significant, positive effect on the lives of millions of Alabamians.”
And that $348 million is just the first round of funding. ADEM says it expects to commit $473 million this year to water and sewer systems across the state.
All told, Alabama is expecting approximately $1 billion in federal funding to address water issues over the next five years from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, both signed into law by President Joe Biden last year.
During a visit to Lowndes County last month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said Biden personally told them to fix the sewage crisis in Alabama’s Black Belt after reading news reports about residents dealing with sewage backing up into their yards and homes due to the unique conditions of the area. Many in the Black Belt live in areas that are too rural for large sewer lines to be cost-effective, but where the thick clay soil makes most septic tank systems ineffective.
Alabama is also contributing $111 million in grants and loans through the State Revolving Fund to water and sewer infrastructure projects. Combined, it’s the most significant investment in Alabama water infrastructure in several decades, but it won’t be nearly enough to fund all requests in the state.
ADEM, which is handling the applications and administering the funds, says it has already received $3.2 billion in funding requests from water utilities and municipalities across the state.
“We make no pretense that we can satisfy all the water and sewer infrastructure needs in the state of Alabama,” LeFleur said. “The billions of dollars in requests we have received total several times the amount of money we have available. Projects we are not able to fund this year will be considered for funding in future years.”
Of the $348 million in projects approved so far, $77 million will be directed to the Black Belt in the form of grants that do not require repayment or matching funds. The town of Hayneville in Lowndes County, often used as the prime example of the region’s sewage crisis, was awarded a $10 million grant for sewer projects and $2.9 million for drinking water projects.
But the funding isn’t just for Alabama’s poorest or least populated areas. ADEM has also approved funding for projects in Jefferson, Mobile, Madison, Tuscaloosa, Shelby, Baldwin, Houston, Lee, Morgan, Calhoun and Walker Counties, including many of the state’s largest metro areas.
So far, ADEM has approved projects in 48 of Alabama’s 67 counties.
Some water systems that have more resources — such as the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, which will receive $41 million for sewer projects and $23 million for drinking water projects — the money is coming in the form of low- to no-interest loans and may require local matching funds.
The loans will be part of a revolving fund, so when the funds that are repaid, the money will then be used to fund other projects in the state.
Other notable funded projects include:
- Birmingham Water Works Board: $43.5 million to replace lead pipes in the drinking water system
- City of Florence: $15 million for drinking water system improvements
- City of Tuscaloosa: $12 million for drinking water projects and $10.8 for sewer projects
- City of Dothan: $12.5 million for water main replacement
- Selma Water Works Board: $20.8 million for lead pipe replacement and water treatment plant improvements
- Scottsboro Water, Sewer and Gas Board: $14 million for improvements to the wastewater treatment plant
ADEM has created a website, alabamawaterprojects.com, to track the applications and see brief descriptions of projects that have been approved.