Communities in New Mexico have an opportunity to get free help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to figure out what water problems they face, and apply for federal funds to solve them.
Not everyone knows about this program, including officials leading recovery efforts in areas that have seen intense fires and floods over the past years.
The goal of the Water Technical Assistance program is to address drinking water, wastewater and stormwater challenges, EPA officials said at a virtual meeting in late July.
Services in the program include work to expand water systems’ capacity, help putting together applications for federal grants and loans, and identifying contaminants like lead in water pipes.
Local governments, tribes, water utility systems and non-governmental organizations can ask for the help.
Three communities in New Mexico so far have requested the water assistance — Ojo Caliente, Taos and Mosquero, said EPA spokesperson Joe Robledo.
Following a massive disaster season last year and dozens of fires active now, Robledo said one of the goals of the 2022 federal infrastructure act — which funded the program and helped boost its presence last year — is to help communities adapt to climate challenges, like those New Mexico is currently facing.
“Technical assistance will help underserved communities improve sustainability and resilience in their infrastructure to adapt to these challenges,” he said.
Some disaster-affected communities were unaware of the program’s existence when Source NM reached out.
Maria Gilvarry is the utilities director for Las Vegas, N.M., a city still struggling with post-wildfire debris and sediment impacting water quality. Work is ongoing with federal funds to revamp the city’s old water treatment system, but that’ll take at least five years to get done.
City officials, including Gilvarry, told lawmakers in July that they need to modernize their technology sooner than that to keep delivering healthy water for residents’ use.
Gilvarry told Source NM she hadn’t specifically heard of this EPA technical water assistance program, but it could be something to look into.
“Any funding support would be beneficial,” she said.
She said the utility sometimes has capacity issues applying to federal grants, something not uncommon for smaller water systems that often operate with fewer staff members. That’s one of the areas this federal program aims to help with.
Something the grant likely couldn’t fix is the need for more water facility operators, which Gilvarry said the city has issues with. She said there’s also a lack of contractors to do the repairs or upgrades that are needed.
“We always need more work, more repairs,” she said.
Todd Loretto is the public works director for Jemez Pueblo. Like Gilvarry, he said he hasn’t heard of this federal program but would be interested in applying.
In April, wastewater flooded the Jemez River. Loretto said Jemez Pueblo didn’t sustain too much damage from that incident, but it did impact sewage systems. He said wastewater is still a concern, and more federal funds would help.
“The Pueblo is open to explore other funding,” he said
He said Jemez Pueblo could also use additional dollars to solve issues caused by climate change and drought. For example, Loretto said, the Pueblo could build reservoirs or improve well performance.
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Phil King is the consultant to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. He said he’s heard of the program but hasn’t really looked into it.
While serving on the New Mexico Water Task Force, King said the organization talked about how this EPA program could serve as a resource for smaller water systems that need help boosting their planning abilities.
That’s what King said he’s working on in Elephant Butte. He said it’s helpful to take time and figure out what needs to be prioritized, something in this program’s scope.
Like Las Vegas and Jemez Pueblo, Elephant Butte has a relatively small water system. The officials in charge are already at capacity working on several grants, he said.
King said a lot is falling through the cracks.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we’re doing in kind of a mad rush right now because there’s so much funding available,” he said.
King said if Elephant Butte finds the time and decides to ask for the federal water help, officials who are often wearing multiple hats would have to divvy up the work to actually get the request in.
There are ongoing efforts to get more people aware of the water aid.
Robledo said the University of New Mexico Southwest Environmental Finance Center got a water-related grant from the EPA and “just started working” with environmental agencies in New Mexico and other states to figure out what communities need the technical water assistance.
Sheyda Esnaashari, EPA technical assistance specialist, said at the virtual July meeting that the federal agency has been ramping up technical assistance work since 2022, pulling from the $50 billion in water funds made available from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
She said the EPA is working with providers who have expertise in challenges unique to rural and tribal communities.
“Too many communities in the United States are living without the basics, including safe and reliable water services,” she said.