Politics

Congress votes to send millions of dollars to rural Alaska for water infrastructure

WASHINGTON — New infrastructure legislation passed by Congress this month could send millions of dollars to rural Alaska to fund water infrastructure upgrades.

The funding will help residents who still use "honey buckets" in their homes in the Bush by providing grant funding to upgrade infrastructure there.

The law, named the "Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act of 2016," is a recasting of a water infrastructure bill that provides government funding for drinking water, flood management and sewer programs across the country, among other infrastructure projects.

President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law at the close of last week.

Congress no longer uses direct earmarks to allocate funds, so lawmakers have to find more creative ways to target spending toward home.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, managed to do that in this bill by crafting a provision targeted at rural, disadvantaged communities that lack indoor plumbing or sewer systems. There are dozens of communities that meet the criteria in Alaska.

The bill authorizes $300 million in grant funding over five years for the new program (fiscal years 2017 through 2021). The bill authorizes funding, but does not allocate it. That means that the projects are approved for government spending, but they still have to be funded through the separate budget process.

"For Alaska, investment in such infrastructure is crucial. More than 3,300 rural Alaska homes lack running water and a flush toilet, which leads to serious health issues. This is unacceptable," Sullivan said.

"One of my top priorities has been to ensure that the federal government realizes its responsibilities to provide basic infrastructure for its citizens," Sullivan said.

The funding level is significantly lower than what the Senate initially authorized in an earlier version of the bill in September — $1.4 billion over five years.

But the new grant program, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, would still add a boost to the roughly $70 million spent on infrastructure upgrades in the Bush.

The grant program won't be exclusively available to Alaska villages, but there are few communities in the Lower 48 that meet criteria. A small number of scattered communities in Mississippi, West Virginia and Texas have similar water and sewer problems.

More than 3,300 rural Alaska homes do not have tap water or flush toilets, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. In 34 communities — mostly in Western Alaska — fewer than 55 percent of the homes have piped water or wells, or a septic system.

Dozens of villages use "washeterias," and central water points where villagers collect safe water and haul it back home.

The bill also allows Alaska Native corporations to act as partners with the Army Corps of Engineers in funding water projects, rather than requiring "partner" funding from the state.

The bill also authorizes funding for a harbor project in Little Diomede in the Bering Strait and Craig in Southeast.

The Corps will consult with the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security for the feasibility study of an Arctic deep-draft port, with hopes that national security concerns will bolster the priority of the project, given the lack of oil development in the region.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, heaped kudos on Sullivan for his efforts to secure an Alaska-focused provision in the bill. Sullivan sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is responsible for funding water infrastructure projects.

"Alaska faces unique challenges — due to factors such as our state's vast size and remoteness — and I'm pleased this bill helps us address those challenges by allowing much-needed infrastructure projects to advance," Murkowski said.

Murkowski also authored a provision in the bill that requires the Corps to consider regional impacts of harbor projects in its planning process. She said the provision could boost the perceived viability of more harbor projects in rural Alaska.

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