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USDA Awards $4.25M Grant to Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District

Leigh Hallett
Release Date

Major water treatment projects underway across Maine
with $33M invested by USDA Rural Development in FY 2023

Bangor, Dec. 8, 2023 – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Maine State Director Rhiannon Hampson today announced a major grant for the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District. The agency has awarded the district a $4.25M grant and a low-interest loan of $5M. The announcement is Rural Development’s final Water and Environmental Programs (WEP) award of fiscal year 2023, during which the agency invested over $33M for wastewater treatment projects in Maine. Such projects improve the quality of life in rural communities and help protect Maine’s waterways.

“At Rural Development we know that wastewater treatment upgrades are critically important and incredibly expensive,” said Director Hampson. “Mt. Desert Island epitomizes Maine’s culture of conservation and natural resource protection in balance with economic vibrancy. Undertaking an infrastructure project in such a place requires long-term environmental leadership, which Rural Development brings to the table. We look forward to seeing this project through to completion with Southwest Harbor’s dedicated local leaders. Towns across Maine are engaged in similar projects thanks to these major investments by the Biden-Harris Administration.”

Recreational and fishing boats float in a calm harbor. There is a dock in the foreground and building and a low hill on the opposite shore. The sun is shining and the leaves are green on the background trees.
The Southwest Harbor Wastewater Treatment Facility is located near the busy harbor.

Planning for the Southwest Harbor wastewater treatment upgrades began in 2018. Since then, the cost of equipment and materials has risen significantly. The project is further complicated by the treatment facility’s small footprint and location adjacent to a marina and near Acadia National Park. USDA Rural Development’s Civil Engineer Scott Emery advised on the project from the start and notes that such projects routinely take several years or more to complete. The work will begin this spring.

USDA funded several other coastal WEP projects in Maine in 2023. For example:

  • The Lubec Water District received a grant of $25K to assess its 25 miles of water lines and its overall water system. The pipes are over 100 years old, so the assessment effort will likely lead to significant updates in the future. This work complements an ongoing project to upgrade the town’s wastewater treatment facility and pumping stations. USDA Rural Development funded that work with a grant of $1.6M and a loan of $2M.
  • The Town of Camden received a grant of $1.4M and a loan of $12.5M to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility and pump stations. Formerly a pipe under the harbor conveyed sewage from a pumping station to the treatment plant. Thanks to this project, pipes have been installed under town streets instead, so sewage is no longer pumped under the harbor to the treatment plant.
  • The Freeport Sewer District received a grant of $7.5M and two loans totaling over $12.6M. The district will update its wastewater treatment plant and collection system to be more effective and to help alleviate health and sanitary concerns. Due to Freeport’s location on Casco Bay Watershed, this project will potentially benefit other coastal communities such as Yarmouth, Falmouth, Phippsburg, and Cape Elizabeth.

The  Water and Waste Disposal program helps to fund clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and stormwater drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas. State and local governments, federally recognized tribes, and nonprofits in rural communities may be eligible to apply. Contact Bob Nadeau, Community Programs Director (robert.nadeau@usda.gov or 207-990-9121) for more information.

Wastewater treatment and Maine’s coast:

Many Maine residents are familiar with private septic systems to treat sewage in situations where a municipal wastewater treatment system is not available. Septic systems are land-based, filtering liquids from sewage through leach fields. Fewer people know that there are also private systems that discharge treated wastewater directly into rivers, streams, and the ocean. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) licenses 650 of these Overboard Discharge (OBD) locations, with many along northern Casco Bay and mid-coast Maine.

DEP has been working for years to reduce the number of OBDs in Maine. One reason is that they pose a risk to nearby shellfisheries. The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) monitors and maps these locations and prohibits shellfish harvesting in the vicinity of OBD outfall pipes. Due to the risk of contamination posed by OBDs, an estimated 20,000 acres of mudflats and potential aquaculture habitat are currently closed to harvesting along Maine’s coast. As more OBDs are eliminated over time, more coastal habitats are likely to open for shellfish and aquacultural harvesting.  

The image shows an empty beach in the foreground with a receding tide. There is blue sky and clouds overhead.
A recent wastewater treatment project in Lincolnville helped ensure local waters are cleaner.  

Efforts to expand and improve Maine’s wastewater treatment infrastructure impact the tourism industry as well. For example, the Lincolnville Sewer District recently completed a project to build a public wastewater treatment facility. Previously, local homes and businesses managed their wastewater treatment through septic systems and OBDs, and effluent pipes discharged near Lincolnville Beach. To protect this popular tourist destination, local leaders worked with state and federal partners on a multi-year project to install a public wastewater treatment system. USDA Rural Development provided over $3.5M in funding, and the Maine DEP’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) continues to support the work.

Meagan Sims, Maine Healthy Beaches Coordinator with DEP’s Bureau of Water Quality, notes that “Reducing or eliminating any potential human pollution sources through wastewater infrastructure repairs and upgrades can support improvements to existing coastal water quality conditions, protect public health, and prevent future threats to water quality.” Funding these complicated years-long projects often requires partnerships between municipal, state, and federal agencies and dogged persistence from local water district staff and town leaders.

Grants are one component of the funding assistance USDA Rural Development provides. Just as important are the low-interest loans the agency makes available to rural municipalities and water districts for these projects. For example, the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District was able to secure a 40-year loan at 2.125 percent.

“Rural communities often can’t budget for such improvements through fees alone,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Hampson. “That is why we dedicate so much of our funding and staff time to supporting these vital projects. We bring taxpayer dollars back to Maine to help make these projects feasible for towns, ensuring clean drinking water and wastewater services for residents and businesses. Over the long term, we hope these projects ultimately help keep Maine’s beaches clean and our shellfisheries open. These are vital to Maine’s economy and our regional culture.” 

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This week USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Farah Ahmad 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.

“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.”

On Tuesday, Deputy Under Secretary Farah Ahmad and EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Benita Best-Wong signed 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.

“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.”

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.

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.




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