Last summer, the town of Selbyville saw a potential crisis on the horizon. Money was running low during construction of a new water-treatment facility. If they failed to complete the project, the small town would have to repay a $2.7 million state grant, and Selbyville residents would still be drinking gasoline additives in the water while staring at a half-finished water facility.
A $500,000 USDA Rural Development grant saved the day and pushed the project forward toward its completion date of late May.
But President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would eliminate all USDA water and wastewater loan and grant programs, worth $498 million. As part of his proposed 21 percent cut from USDA’s overall budget, Trump suggested shaving 2.8 percent by eliminating the $498 million program that has helped Selbyville on multiple occasions.
That’s alarming to leaders at all levels of Delaware government.
The USDA helps rural communities build, expand or modernize water and wastewater facilities for populations of 10,000 or fewer. Delaware has benefitted from about 44 projects, worth $131.2 million dollars, including $70 million in Sussex County, said Kathy Beisner, acting state director for USDA Rural Development in Maryland and Delaware.
Several million dollars have been granted to Selbyville projects, and the Town is hoping for more in the near future.
“There was no way Selbyville could have done anything with this water without help,” said Mayor Clifton Murray, describing the years of frustration dealing with gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether) seeping into its groundwater, which triggered the construction of new wells and the new water plant.
“Our town deserves it. All towns do. Good, solid drinking water — a good supply of it. I think we’re on the right road to achieve that. It would have been impossible without [the funding]. I don’t know what we would have done.”
The president’s budget blueprint only includes discretionary funding proposals, which “eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the federal government,” the document states.
“The budget request supports core [USDA] and mission critical activities while streamlining, reducing or eliminating duplicative, redundant or lower priority programs where the federal role competes with the private sector or other levels of government.”
But having multiple pots of money strengthens projects, others have argued. With the USDA funding gone, the remaining governmental pots of money would dry up faster among all the competition, said Selbyville Councilman Richard “Rick” Duncan Sr. “But if you’ve got two pots, it’s easier to get projects done.”
For just the new water treatment plant — which includes air strippers to help MTBEs evaporate out of the drinking water — Selbyville was fortunate to get more than $3 million in what is essentially grant money from the USDA and Delaware State Revolving Fund, as the zero-interest loans are forgiven upon project completion.
By leveraging money across different agencies, USDA dollars are made more effective. The goal is to improve life and opportunities for rural and small towns.
Such water and wastewater programs date back to 1930s, originally targeted at improving water resources for farms in drought-stricken western states.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said such projects were once funded by combining federal and state grants, until the revolving loan program started during the Reagan era.
Revolving funds use low-interest loans to help fund new projects.
“It works,” with a combination of state and federal money, plus water customer fees, Carper said. “It’s like a three-legged stool — [the president’s budget] takes out the Rural Development piece, which, in this case, I don’t think this new drinking water plant could be built.”
“Rural communities can be served by private-sector financing or other federal investments in rural water infrastructure, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s State Revolving Funds,” stated the president’s budget blueprint.
But Duncan warned that private funding would be a burden for Selbyville’s working families and senior citizens. Water and wastewater rates could increase, due to higher interest rates and shorter loan periods for water system improvement projects.
Aside from his position on the council, Duncan is also the executive director of the Delaware Rural Water Association, which provides technical assistance, training and legislative representation for water systems across Delaware.
“Delaware Rural Water provides funding sources from the USDA Rural Development to the systems that are in need of treatment, upgrades, distribution expansion, and are just plain failing infrastructures,” Duncan said. “It is because of this partnership … that makes America great and our drinking water clean and safe.”
Selbyville’s not done with water projects, either.
“We’re going to need at least $5 million more to finish up what we need here,” including filters, backwash filters and possibly a new water tower or storage, Duncan said. “Without those loans and grants, infrastructure progress stops.”
“There are approximately 52,000 community water supplies in the nation, of which 92 percent serve” populations of fewer than 10,000 people, according to the National Rural Water Association.
The most complicated task for some small communities is “the ability to provide, on a daily basis, clean, safe drinking water and sanitary disposal wastewater,” Beisner said.
“I understand budgets at the federal level are majorly constrained, as is [the case] in Delaware, and so I think it’s always a balancing act of prioritizing,” said Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett, who also chaired Trump’s 2016 Delaware campaign. “So, for me, I would be for continuation of the money, obviously, coming from the feds. It’s a matter of them privatizing and Congress battling it out as for the priorities.
“Like most things, this is a shared responsibility,” said Carper, who serves on the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. “What is the role of government? … People ask the question, and I think of Matthew 25 [Verse 35], ‘When I was thirsty, did you give me to drink?’ Well, yeah, we did. And what we gave you to drink was something you could drink and not get sick when you drink it.”
In May, the president’s full and detailed budget proposal will include specific details, including tax proposals. Then Congress will also begin planning and debating the national budget. The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The entire outline of “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” is online at www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget.