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UNM awarded $3.7 million from EPA for drinking water and wastewater projects

May 13, 2021 - by Kim Delker

The University of New Mexico is one of the lead institutions that will receive grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for training and technical assistance to small drinking water and wastewater systems serving mostly small communities throughout the United States and its territories.

Heather Himmelberger, director of the Southwest Environmental Finance Center at UNM, is leading two projects, which are:

  • $2.7 million to provide training and technical assistance for small public water systems to achieve and maintain compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, including improving financial and managerial capacity
  • $1 million to work with small publicly-owned wastewater and on-site/decentralized wastewater systems to improve water quality.

The UNM projects were among over $17 million in funding announced May 12 by the EPA. This funding will improve public health and environmental protection by helping to ensure that drinking water in these communities is safe to drink and that wastewater is treated before being responsibly returned to the environment.

According to the EPA, about 97% of the nation’s public water systems serve fewer than 10,000 people.

“These smaller communities have a lot of unique challenges, including inadequate funding, deferred maintenance, an aging workforce, increasingly stringent regulations, and lack of an economy of scale,” Himmelberger said. “This makes it a lot harder for these communities to comply with regulations and could impact their ability to provide the public with safe drinking water and ensure a healthy environment.”

UNM’s Southwest Environmental Finance Center, a part of the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, offers a variety of services that promote self-reliance through innovative training. Among the center’s services are tribal water operator certification, asset management for green and gray infrastructure; GIS; rates studies and financial sustainability; affordability; managerial assistance; process development; resiliency; regulatory research and analysis; and energy management.

Both EPA-funded projects include working with Tribal communities, as well as the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Himmelberger said the center will work with a wide audience, including utility employees and leadership, elected officials, and private owners of septic systems and the general public. They will offer their expertise in the form of training (in-person and virtual), educational resources, and employ nontraditional means of communication with various groups, including podcasts, videos, websites, animations, and social media.

“There is such a need to help them, and we hope to build internal capabilities in these smaller, rural communities and give them the tools they need to succeed and sustain themselves,” she said.

In addition to UNM, recipients of funding are the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the National Rural Water Association. The grant money will be released to recipients once all legal and administrative requirements are satisfied.