It may seem a long time off, but Feb. 17, 2010, is a date many state water agencies are eagerly anticipating.
With the emphasis on getting stimulus-related projects under construction as soon as possible, they're foregoing day-to-day duties to handle their top priority at the moment: administering American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) funds to state and local projects in time to meet the legislation's ambitious deadline, now just five months away.
"Since July our work priorities have shifted, and we're working longer hours as well as weekends," says Dave Waldo, chief of the public water supply section of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, whose staff of three reviews all specifications for new construction and maintenance projects. The state is financing 25 projects partially with stimulus funds allocated to the clean water and drinking water State Revolving Loan Funds (SRF).
So far, seven have been authorized to bid. "In the meantime, other projects are backing up," Waldo says. "This backlog will probably continue through early October." The state received $19.5 million tin stimulus funding.
Although only two projects are being funded entirely through the economic stimulus package, the state added $20 million from bond proceeds leveraged from previous years to the stimulus funds for a total of $39.5 million for the 25 projects.
Waldo's unit is dealing with the added workload as best as it can.Although states may use up to 4% from revolving loans to hire additional staff, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is using that as a credit against future grants to hire staff and cover administrative costs such as publishing legal notices. "I don't think we could have hired someone and had him trained quickly enough," Waldo says.
Ron Falco didn't want to wait. The safe drinking program manager within the Water Quality Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public health and Environment says the impact on his team's workload is "substantial. There's no other way to put it."
The division typically handles about 10 clean water and 10 drinking water projects annually, but the stimulus package has tripled that number. So it's invested some of its $63-million award to hire four full-time employees - two engineers, one scientist to conduct environmental assessments, and one project manager - in addition to one part-time administrative position. They were hired as "limited-term full-time exempt" staff, meaning that their term of employment is limited to the 18-to-21-month timeframe established by the stimulus package.
"They don't have retention rights, but all signs are pointing to a larger federal investment in state revolving loans, which would increase the size of the 4% set-asides," Falco says. If that happens, the division could extend these staff members' employment.
Meanwhile, routine responsibilities such as annual compliance inspections have been pushed back from May to September. "Basically, they were delayed a few months," Falco says. "It's just a crunch." In Colorado, all water projects must be under contract by Oct. 1.
Amid the lull of new construction in Michigan, the workload of project reviewers at the Department of Environmental Quality's Water Bureau has decreased, says Jim Cleland, chief of the bureau's Lansing operations division. The $67 million the stimulus package made available for water and wastewater projects didn't translate into the late nights experienced elsewhere.
Cleland's staff reviews all projects for both public water systems and residential developments. "In terms of new construction, projects have almost dried up," he says. About 25,000 private wells are drilled each year, similar to the number of on-site wastewater projects. "But the projection for this year for wells is under 11,000 - the lowest since 1965 except for one year - and there's expected to be a 60% decline in on-site wastewater projects," he says.
Although the appropriation of stimulus funds to the regular revolving loan project list nearly doubled his staff's workload (40 stimulus projects have been added to the expected amount of 70 revolving loan projects), "it turned out not to be so bad," he says.
However, six mandated furlough days this year have cut into the staff's available time. Additionally, the legislation's "buy American" and environmentally friendly mandates are slowing things down.
"We had to revise project plans to meet those requirements," Cleland says, adding that the staff has coped by conducting fewer annual water system inspections.