From The Editor | December 27, 2016

In Case Of Emergency: Read This

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

The U.S. EPA hosted dual webinars within the last few weeks, both aimed at helping publically-owned water and wastewater utilities afford the necessary steps before and after disaster strikes. The first, “Discover Recovery Financing for Water and Wastewater Utilities,” and the second, “Resilience Mitigation Financing for Water and Wastewater Utilities.” They covered best ways to invest in resilient infrastructure and ways to access state revolving funds (SRFs) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds.

“One of the EPA’s missions is to support the resilience of water and wastewater utilities from all hazards, including natural disasters, accidents, and terrorism,” an agency spokesperson said. “These webinars, along with other EPA trainings, tools, guides, finance forums, clearinghouses, and exercises, help utilities to prepare, respond, mitigate, and recover from disasters. An important part of EPA’s ongoing efforts is to help utilities work with funding agencies like FEMA to pay some portion of the repairs after a disaster or to mitigate impacts before a disaster strikes.”

Before A Disaster Strikes

When it comes to resiliency planning, the EPA offers a slew of online tools. It recently released a starter guide on hazard mitigation for natural disasters and utilities can also refer to its guides for flooding, drought, power outage, and climate risk disasters. The agency also promoted use of its “Federal Funding for Utilities ­— Water/Wastewater — in National Disasters” (Fed FUNDs) tool, which can help utilities find applications for mitigation funding and grants, funding mentors, and past recovery projects that have been funded.

During the resiliency planning webinar, attendees heard from utilities that have made best use of federal funds to prevent disaster (though this often took place only after an emergency had demonstrated their vulnerabilities):

  • A wastewater utility in Elkader, IA, faced record floods in 1999 that damaged the sewage treatment plant, lagoons, and main sanitary lift station. The city used a FEMA grant and local funds totaling $135,000 to raise the berm around the plant, build aeration lagoons, and construct a floodwall to protect the lift station. During another record flood in 2008, the new infrastructure prevented further damage and kept wastewater systems running.
  • A regional water supplier in northern Utah was at risk from earthquakes. The district actively participated in local mitigation planning efforts and prioritized 17 potential mitigation projects for funding. To date, they have received funding from FEMA and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to seismically retrofit the treatment plant, wells, pumps, canals, and a storage tank.
  • A wastewater treatment plant in Pensacola, FL, was hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. As a result of the hurricane, the utility lost two power feeds and suffered a 12-foot storm surge, flooding all equipment and electrical components, causing hundreds of broken sewer mains and the loss of all lift stations. To address resource needs, after several years, the utility was able to assemble several sources of grants and loans from FEMA Mitigation, Federal-Florida SRFs, the state, county, city, and water district, as well as a commercial bank. Now, Pensacola has a disaster resilient water reclamation facility.

Recovering From Disaster

During the recovery webinar, attendees heard stories about how some communities have artfully combined the help of different programs into the necessary largess to bounce back from disaster. The EPA explained that while FEMA typically requires a 75 to 25 cost-share ratio for federal and local contributions, respectively, it will accept community block grants from Housing and Urban Development as the local contribution. Some SRFs can be used similarly.

“Combining multiple funding sources is an effective way to reduce water utility mitigation or repair costs,” said the EPA spokesperson. “SRF loans can be used as bridge financing for FEMA loans, helping communities recover from a disaster more quickly. For example, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust was able to help utilities like Bayshore Regional Sewerage Authority recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.”

If a utility is unfortunate enough to find itself dealing with a natural disaster or resilience issue, the EPA recommends accessing the Fed FUNDs damage assessment forms, photo logs, and checklists so that they can document costs for reimbursement. The agency even has a brochure to consult in cases of Presidentially-declared emergencies or disasters.

The EPA spokesperson said that the most important tips to keep in mind for procuring recovery funds after a disaster include documenting all damage and costs, from rentals and equipment usage to overtime and labor rates; photographing all equipment before and after the disaster and after it is repaired or replaced; and maintaining financial operations throughout.

Naturally, these things won’t be at the top of the priority list if a water or wastewater utility is experiencing severe disaster. This advice is best utilized as much in advance as possible and then as the dust settles afterwards. During a disaster, the knowledge that these programs exist may offer some minor peace of mind.