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UNM to receive $4 million in EPA funding for small, rural and Tribal wastewater systems

October 6, 2021 - by Kim Delker

Researchers from The University of New Mexico are part of $12 million in grants recently announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will provide training and technical assistance to small, rural and Tribal wastewater systems.

This funding will help reduce pollution, protect water quality and improve public health in struggling communities across the country. UNM and its Southwest Environmental Finance Center (SWEFC) will receive $4 million in funding as part of the 2020 Training and Technical Assistance Grant for Small Wastewater Utility Systems in the 18-month project that is expected to begin in early 2022.

Heather Himmelberger, director of the SWEFC, said UNM will be collaborating with an organization called Moonshot Missions (composed primarily of retired wastewater employees) as well as several other universities, including Syracuse University, University of Maryland, University of North Carolina, Wichita State University, Mississippi State University Extension Service and a non-profit entity, EFC West.

Himmelberger said that many smaller communities or individuals have decaying and sometimes unsafe wastewater systems that have not had appropriate attention for many years.

“SWEFC will offer training and educational resources to meet the needs of a broad audience, including utility operators and management, elected officials, private owners of septic systems and the general public. The team of the environmental finance centers and Moonshot Missions is positioned to offer a broad range of technical expertise and assistance to small communities,” she said. “This collaboration will allow us to serve New Mexico and the rest of the country to improve public health and protect the environment in a cost-effective manner. This is an exciting opportunity that will help smaller communities improve their technical, managerial, and financial skills and either come into compliance or maintain compliance.”

Additionally, this project will involve 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.

She said that this project is significant because wastewater is a crucial, but often overlooked, component of a community. Protecting overall community health begins with properly treated drinking water and wastewater. In the past, most of the money associated with building the internal capacity of systems has been reserved for only drinking water, but both are needed. This project allows for the addition of this critical component, she said.

“Wastewater is important because the effluent that leaves the treatment plant and enters waterways is likely to become the source of drinking water for someone else downstream. If there are contaminants remaining in the wastewater, it has the potential to end up in the drinking water,” Himmelberger said. “It is also vital for the environment, including animals, fish and aquatic life. Often times, the aquatic life is even more sensitive to the contaminants, so protecting them will help protect people.”

Others who will receive $4 million are the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and the National Rural Water Association.

The Southwest Environmental Finance Center is a part of the Center for Water and the Environment and the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and 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 mapping; rates studies and financial sustainability; affordability; managerial assistance; process development; resiliency; regulatory research and analysis; and energy management.