USDA highlights water quality projects on Earth Day

By Agri-Pulse staff

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WASHINGTON, April 22, 2016 -  Friday is Earth Day and USDA is using the occasion to spotlight scores of projects designed to improve water quality in 33 states across the country.

In all, the department is investing $183 million in 60 water and wastewater infrastructure projects through the Water and Environmental Program (WEP) administered by USDA's Rural Development office. The program provides technical assistance and financing to develop drinking water and waste disposal systems for communities with fewer than 10,000 residents.

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"Safe drinking water and sanitary waste disposal systems are vital not only to public health, but also to the economic vitality of small communities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. "Helping rural communities build and upgrade their water infrastructure is one more way USDA strengthens rural areas. Building and maintaining water infrastructure creates jobs, boosts the economy, and provides rural families with safe, reliable water and wastewater facilities that improve the environment."

One of those communities is Coggon, Iowa, which is receiving a $2.3 million WEP loan and a $1.89 million WEP grant to construct a wastewater treatment plant and upgrade a plant to benefit the town's 658 residents. The funding will help Coggan meet new pollutant standards and eliminate manual cleaning. Without the new system, waters downstream from the plant could become contaminated, potentially harming human health and the environment, USDA said.

Seventeen of the Earth Day recipients announced this week are receiving funding priority through a 2014 farm fill provision that encourages communities to adopt regional economic development plans. USDA says these projects are centered on collaboration and long-term growth strategies. They leverage outside resources and capitalize on a region's unique strengths.

One of these recipients, the Big Lake Area Sanitary District in Minnesota, is receiving a $2.9 million loan and a $4.5 million grant to build a wastewater treatment plant serving Perch Lake and Sawyer townships and the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. USDA said this collaborative effort will convert the treatment plant into a pressure sewer collection system. Much of the plant is inadequate or failing.

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The project supports the Fond du Lac Community Economic Development Plan, which highlights the importance of providing adequate wastewater treatment services and protecting the health and welfare of people who live or work on the reservation. Improving water quality will increase the fish population, which will boost local tourism revenue.

The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement, according to the Earth Day Network. The passage of the landmark Clean Air ActClean Water ActEndangered Species Act and many other groundbreaking environmental laws soon followed. Twenty years later, more than 1 billion people now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.

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