HELENA — Hundreds of local governments and associations in Montana are seeking federal COVID-19 relief money to pay for water and sewer infrastructure projects – and state leaders are facing decisions about which of those projects are going to get funding.
During the Montana legislative session, lawmakers identified these projects as a top priority. In House Bill 632, they directed more than $500 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to general infrastructure – primarily water and sewer improvements.
Much of that money will be distributed to local governments – from cities and counties to school districts, water or sewer districts and water users associations – through a competitive grant process. July 15 was the deadline to apply for the first round of grants.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which is managing this part of the process, reported receiving more than 300 applications. DNRC spokesperson Kate Wilson said the total amount of money requested was over $1 billion – more than eight times what is currently available.
“I think it really emphasizes the need,” she said.
One of the entities applying for grant funding is the Eastgate Village Water and Sewer Association, which serves about 600 households and more than 2,000 residents in the Eastgate subdivisions, just outside East Helena. They are seeking $750,000 – enough to pay for half of a series of planned upgrades.
“Our system was built in 1975, 1976, so it is getting older; we need to upgrade it to meet the additional demand requirements that we have,” said Jean Riley, the association’s president. “We are losing water from our wells because of the drought and additional impacts for the aquifers, so what we are trying to do is upgrade the system and make it more efficient and make sure that we have capability.”
Eastgate wants to upgrade its water pumps, install emergency generators so service isn’t disrupted in a power outage, and put in a new well. Riley said they were already making plans for those changes, but it was an easy decision to apply for ARPA funding – since any grant they receive means they won’t have to raise rates as much for their residents.
DNRC will be tasked with reviewing all of the applications, ensuring they meet the rules for ARPA funding and ranking them. The state Infrastructure Advisory Commission – including lawmakers, executive department directors and Gov. Greg Gianforte’s legal counsel – will then recommend which projects should be funded.
Gov. Gianforte will have the final decision on which projects to give money to.
Riley says Eastgate has already done preliminary engineering work for their projects. She hopes the fact they’re ready to move forward will work in their favor.
“We are very hopeful that we will meet the requirements because of where we’re at,” she said.
The competitive grants are not the only way for projects like this to get funding. HB 632 also set aside $150 million as a “minimum allocation” for cities and counties, based on their size. For example, Lewis and Clark County will receive $2,380,376.
Eastgate has looked at that money as a potential backup option. If they don’t win a competitive grant, they’re asking the Lewis and Clark County Commission to consider using some of the minimum allocation money for them. The commission will discuss the request at their meeting Thursday.
The Infrastructure Advisory Commission is set to meet next Tuesday, but Wilson said DNRC doesn’t expect to have its rankings for the projects finished by then. She said the rankings will likely be brought up at a commission meeting in August.