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USDA and EPA Strengthen Partnership to Improve Access to Modern and Affordable Wastewater Infrastructure for People in Rural America

USDA Press
Release Date

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2023 – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Farah Ahmad today announced that USDA is strengthening its partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a network of 25 organizations to help people in rural and underserved communities access affordable, modern and safe wastewater infrastructure.

The actions being announced today further the continued collaborations between both agencies to revitalize the nation’s wastewater infrastructure, improve water quality and protect the health of people living in rural areas.

“Decentralized wastewater systems are an integral component of our nation’s wastewater infrastructure, especially in rural areas where centralized treatment is often too expensive or unavailable,” Ahmad said. “USDA is committed to doing everything we can to ensure every family in America has access to modern, reliable wastewater infrastructure. That’s why we are strengthening our partnership with EPA to help historically underserved communities identify and pursue federal funding opportunities to address their wastewater needs. These efforts have enormous impact because when we invest in rural infrastructure, we invest in the livelihoods and health of people in rural America.”

“Safely managing wastewater is essential to protecting people’s health, their property, and the environment. Millions of Americans living in small, rural, and suburban communities rely on septic systems to play this important role every day,” said EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water Benita Best-Wong. “This Memorandum brings together national organizations to engage with local partners to adopt best practices and help strengthen our communities.”

Today, USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Farah Ahmad and EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Benita Best-Wong signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining an industry-wide initiative to improve the overall performance and management of decentralized systems in rural areas. Across the U.S., decentralized (septic or onsite) technology can provide communities and homeowners with a safe, affordable wastewater treatment option.

Comprised of a network of 25 other federal and non-federal industry stakeholders, the Decentralized Wastewater Management MOU was developed by EPA in 2005 in response to a Congressional Report (p. 1997) that highlighted the importance of decentralized wastewater systems.

The Decentralized Wastewater Management MOU is updated every three years. This marks the first year USDA is joining the MOU and demonstrates its ongoing commitment to focus resources on supporting the many rural Americans who rely on decentralized wastewater systems. This MOU more broadly formalizes those efforts with an emphasis on the sharing of information, technology, and other resources through technical assistance, training, and more.

USDA Rural Development staff will:

• Identify and work with state and local finance partners to increase access to funding for rural communities.
• Connect rural communities to technical assistance resources provided through the Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative.
• Foster connections between technical assistance providers to support the design, construction and financing of sustainable decentralized wastewater infrastructure.

More information is available in the complete Memorandum of Understanding.

An estimated 2.2 million people in the United States lack basic running water and indoor plumbing. Many more live in communities with unsafe wastewater infrastructure. According to the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey (AHS), approximately one in five homes in America are served by individual decentralized wastewater systems.

EPA offers technical assistance that can help communities access funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other federal programs to improve these conditions. For example, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $11.7 billion in loans and grants through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a federal-state partnership led by EPA that provides communities low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects.

Last year, USDA and EPA also announced the Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative, to help historically underserved communities identify and pursue federal funding opportunities, including funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to address their wastewater needs and eliminate harmful exposure to backyard sewage.

As the only federal program solely focused on rural water and waste disposal systems, USDA Rural Development’s Water and Environmental Programs also partner with rural communities to obtain the financing and technical assistance necessary to develop, maintain and improve drinking water and waste disposal systems. This assistance can also help mitigate health risks and increase access to safe, reliable drinking water and sanitary waste disposal services.

Additionally, through the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program, USDA awards grants to qualified nonprofit organizations including eligible Tribal lending institutions to provide affordable loans or sub-grants to low-income homeowners who need assistance constructing, refurbishing or servicing individually-owned household water well or wastewater systems.

USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.