ATLANTA (AP) — Much of the so-called "set aside" money intended to help states comply with federal drinking water requirements covers salaries of state employees and payment to private contractors, according to state records in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi reviewed by The Associated Press. In addition to providing loans for local water projects, the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund allows states to set aside up to 31 percent of the money they receive for operating and administrative costs.
Nationally, more than $2.7 billion has been used for set-asides since 1996, the year Congress created the revolving fund as the condition of local water systems deteriorated.
"We do have an aging infrastructure out there, but there are a lot of things you don't see that need to be constantly maintained by operators," said John Cooper, director of the Georgia Water and Wastewater Institute.
The organization received about $135,000 to provide training in 2012, according to Georgia Environmental Finance Authority records. It runs courses refreshing operators' knowledge of state and federal standards for drinking waterfor a fee of about $300, compared to private courses Cooper said can run from $1000 to $1500.
The portion of the federal money states devote to these purposes has been growing in recent years, from a long-term average of 15 percent to 20 percent over the last four years. In the Deep South, requests for 2015 run from 26 percent in Georgia down to 6 percent in Alabama. Louisiana and Mississippi also were below average, respectively requesting about 14 percent and 12 percent.
Money used for salaries or training does not have to be repaid and reduces the funding available for actual improvements to treatment plants, water mains and other infrastructure. Relying on federal support for routine operating expenses carries risks.
If Congress cuts the EPA's revolving fund, as it has discussed in recent years, cash-strapped states might have to find other ways to pay those costs.
At the same time, industry watchdogs warn that water systems across the country are badly in need of replacement. Currently available federal funding doesn't come close to the projected cost of upgrades nationwide, meaning local communities and their residents will be on the hook. In 2015, for example, Georgia's top priorities when applying for the fund included $3.1 million to extend Rabun County's water system to an area with contaminated or dry wells and $8.2 billion to update a 1920s-era pumping station that sends water from the Flint River to the city of Griffin's treatment plant serving more than 23,000 residents.
A 2014 report by a group that represents the managers of state water systems warned that using so much money for administrative costs "could adversely affect the longevity" of the revolving fund. Over time, states could receive less federal funding "critical" to supporting drinking water programs, the Association of State Drinking WaterAdministrators' report warned.
James Dailey, chief of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management's program overseeing itsdrinking water fund, said his predecessor agreed. Alabama records show it requested only set-asides to help fund administration of its state drinking water program, but not for local utilities operating costs. The rest of Alabama'sfederal funding goes toward direct loans for local construction projects, which must be repaid.
"If we took the maximum in other set-asides, that money's gone and spent," Daily said. "We don't want to have to set a cut-off line, where somebody submits a pre-application for construction and gets denied. We don't want to be the bad guy."
Officials in the region's other three states all reported using federal funding to run programming for local systems. Daily said Alabama does offer training programs similar to those in other states, but doesn't use the federal fund to cover those costs.
In nearby Mississippi, Jason Barrett helps run a "peer review" program through the Mississippi State University Extension Service. Water experts tour facilities and then offer advice to local water system employees. Maintenance and new construction is important, Barrett acknowledged, but he considers the program a good investment.
"If we're getting $20,000 and we're able to help 20 systems around the state, that's better than giving each $1,000 toward infrastructure," he said. "You might be able to buy one set of brackets around a fire hydrant. You're not going to get very far."