USDA announces new effort to improve water quality and public health in low-income communities in the Southwest

July 25, 2012 | General RCAP News

WASHINGTON (USDA) – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced July 24 that low-income rural areas will benefit from changes in the way USDA funds water and wastewater projects. Rural Development Acting Deputy Under Secretary Judith Canales made the announcement on Vilsack's behalf while she toured the wastewater treatment system in the City of Peñitas, Texas.

"This change in our water and wastewater funding process will provide more assistance to colonias to address significant health risks in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border," Canales said. "Many of these areas are not served by water and waste facilities. The change to our funding process will assign priority points for projects in colonias, which will help increase investments needed to strengthen these communities and improve the quality of life for their residents."

Water and waste funding is made through USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a Rural Development agency. USDA outlined the changes to the funding process in a regulation published on page 43149 of the July 24, 2012 Federal Register. Colonias are defined as those recognized by states or counties before October 1, 1989. They must lack adequate infrastructure, including water and sewer facilities.

Peñitas is a Hidalgo County colonia that received a USDA Rural Development loan and grant in 2011 to construct a water treatment plant. There is currently no sewer system in place, and residents use onsite septic tank systems that pose a health hazard.

In December 2009, the Government Accountability Office released a report describing the need for improved funding and coordination among federal agencies to address inadequacies in colonias services. USDA is committed to improving access to water and water quality in colonias areas and is working with other federal agencies to improve program delivery. Since 1993, RUS provided more than $425 million in grants for more than 500 water and waste projects serving colonias.

While in Texas, Canales also spoke in McAllen at a conference of the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders and visited additional Rural Development projects supporting sustainable community development.
President Obama's plan for rural America has brought about historic investment and resulted in stronger rural communities. Under the president's leadership, these investments in housing, community facilities, businesses and infrastructure have empowered rural America to continue leading the way – strengthening America's economy and strengthening small towns and rural communities. USDA's investments in rural communities support the rural way of life that stands as the backbone of our American values. President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are committed to a smarter use of federal resources to foster sustainable economic prosperity and ensure the government is a strong partner for businesses, entrepreneurs and working families in rural communities.

USDA, through its Rural Development mission area, has an active portfolio of more than $170 billion in loans and loan guarantees. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America.