State environmental officials asked Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee for more funding to repair and upgrade municipal water and sewer infrastructure on Tuesday.
At a budget hearing, Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers requested a nearly 50 percent increase in the amount the state loans to local utilities.
The request comes as small towns across Tennessee and other states struggle to maintain their aging drinking water and wastewater systems. Without the required maintenance, old pipes can burst, sewage can back up and cities can’t grow.
In recent years the state has dedicated nearly $6 million for the State Revolving Fund Program, but environmental officials are asking this year for $8.5 million.
“We know there’s even greater need out there for water and sewer infrastructure, especially in some of our distressed communities,” Salyers said.
A focus on rural, small towns
One of the Lee administration’s top priorities is rural economic development, which became the focus of discussions. The state ranks each county based on its economic health, and some — particularly in rural areas — get the worst ranking: Distressed. Lee, reiterating his priority, asked how the department selects utilities.
Chuck Head, who leads the department’s environmental division, said the agency bases decisions on the highest priority of repairs. It sometimes picks small towns for loans, he said, but they don’t always accept because they would have to increase customer rates.
State funds are matched four-to-one by the federal government. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted Tennessee an additional $13 million, Salyers said, but he needed the additional state money to take advantage of the federal funds.