Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

TOP STORY >> Group fears water line in jeopardy

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

The stimulus money the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority board hoped would pay for its Greers Ferry Lake project is almost certainly out of reach.

The $65 million project would pay for a treatment plant and transmission line to supply water from Greers Ferry Lake. The water authority’s board learned Tuesday that it does not appear to meet the criteria for funding through the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, which funds programs in place and not for long-term projects.

Dave Fenter, finance manager with Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, told the board that his agency is still trying to get the EPA to agree to the project. But in his opinion, the project will lose the stimulus money and may not be eligible for any money from the EPA. The panel had hoped to obtain federal funds from the commission to finance the project. LWPWA members include Vilonia, Jacksonville, Cabot, North Pulaski Water Association and Grand Prairie/Bayou Two Water Association.

If the project doesn’t fit the EPA criteria, Fenter said his agency has five or six other projects waiting in line for the stimulus money so the state will not lose it. He declined to name those possible recipients.

The EPA money is intended to remedy existing problems, not anticipated problems from growth. And since the stimulus money would come through EPA, project members would have to show they need water now.

The state commission and the water authority also would have to arrange for some of the LWPWA members with large customer bases to finance the project and work out a method for collecting payments. And they would have to have it all worked out by the Feb. 17 deadline for stimulus-funded projects. Fenter told members the deadline would be very difficult to meet.

To be eligible, for EPA funding, either stimulus money or the regular EPA funding, virtually every water system in the LWPWA membership would have to be at near capacity, Fenter said. Vilonia, Ward and McRae may be close to that point, but not the others.

When project engineer Tom-my Bond suggested that since EPA is interested only in the water situation as it is today, letters from members wouldn’t have to include projects like those under way in Cabot, Jacksonville and North Pulaski to connect to Central Arkansas Water.

Cabot WaterWorks spokesman Bill Cypert quoted a maxim that he said came from southern Arkansas where he grew up: Figures lie and liars figure.

“Cabot won’t put in writing that Cabot needs water today,” Cypert said.

Furthermore, even after the stimulus money is gone, the project would still have to meet those same guidelines to receive EPA money.

Fenter said his agency is looking for alternative funding that would still allow construction without going over the $65 million cost estimate, the base for contracts members have been asked to sign.

But without EPA money, funding through the state commission could be difficult.

Fenter said afterward that if his agency can’t fund the whole project, there are other state agencies that might be able to help.

The commission intended to fund the project because it will provide surface water and stop the reliance on wells. Fenter said it was always viewed as a worthwhile project and until a few weeks ago, no one in his agency would have ever thought he project would not be eligible for EPA funding.

But now, because of the stimulus money, the EPA is closely scrutinized to ensure no project is funded unless it is unquestionably eligible.

During the Bush administration, the amount of federal money that came to his agency declined, he said. The 2010 federal budget is supposed to be more favorable, but the Lonoke-White project is already on the EPA’s radar as one that does not meet the criteria so funding could remain a problem even when more money is available, he said.