A huge influx of state and federal funding for water infrastructure improvements is presenting Michigan communities with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remove lead service lines, replace leaky pipes and upgrade treatment systems.
For some, the availability of more funding for this type of work is only half the battle. Many small and cash-strapped communities lack the personnel or expertise to navigate the bureaucratic red tape of state and federal programs that fund water infrastructure improvements.
MI Water Navigator, an online help desk launched by the Michigan Municipal League Foundation in 2021, aims to change that. The $362,000 project, which is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and other funders, is leveling the playing field for Michigan cities, villages and urban townships seeking state and federal funds for water infrastructure improvements.
“Accessing these funds is not as easy as you would think,” said Helen Johnson, president of the Municipal League Foundation. For example, she said Michigan’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans for water infrastructure upgrades, has “huge barriers” that discourage many communities from applying.
We learned during Flint’s water crisis that underserved communities often lack the personnel or expertise to even apply for state or federal funding that would help address critical water issues. This program will help communities overcome those limitations.”Kim Gleffe, program officer for Mott’s Environment program
MI Water Navigator gives Michigan communities of any size the ability to apply for state or federal funding for water infrastructure improvements. That alone is a huge step forward, said Kim Gleffe, a program officer for Mott’s Environment program.
“We learned during Flint’s water crisis that underserved communities often lack the personnel or expertise to even apply for state or federal funding that would help address critical water issues,” Gleffe said. “This program will help communities overcome those limitations.”
Gleffe said the MI Water Navigator has succeeded as a one-stop shop for technical assistance. It has become a national model for other communities seeking similar assistance, and it’s being used to increase community access to state-level clean water revolving funds, one of the main sources of funding for water system improvements across the country.
In addition to the online help desk, the MML Foundation has contracted with the engineering firm OHM Advisors to provide technical assistance to Michigan communities seeking grants or loans for water infrastructure upgrades. The firm has 35 years of experience working on infrastructure issues and dealing with state and federal bureaucracies.
“We’re trying to address a range of capacity issues by creating a platform that helps communities find resources for their water needs,” said Grace Carey, a program officer at the MML Foundation. Initially, MI Water Navigator will be used to help communities obtain state and federal grants, and low-interest loans, to upgrade drinking water infrastructure.
State and federal lawmakers recently approved huge investments in a variety of infrastructure upgrades, $750 million of which has been designated for drinking water infrastructure improvements in Michigan. While large, that amount of money won’t address all the issues with Michigan’s aging water infrastructure. Collectively, Michigan communities and state agencies need to spend an additional $800 million annually, for several years, to modernize aging water infrastructure, according to recent studies.
At the local level, many Michigan communities lack the financial resources to comply with the state’s new lead and copper rule. That rule, which requires all communities to remove water lines containing lead by 2041, was enacted in the wake of Flint’s water crisis.
“There is a huge need to help communities meet the lead and copper mandate,” Carey said.
The MI Water Navigator toolkit provides a range of services, from identifying sources of money to helping municipal officials submit grant and loan applications that are technically sound. In its first year, the program helped 75 communities via workshops and assistance from the online help desk. About two-thirds of those communities are economically disadvantaged and have populations of less than 10,000 residents, according to MML Foundation data.
Some larger cities have utilized the MI Water Navigator’s online toolkit, but Johnson said helping smaller communities and those working with residents to address critical water needs is the priority.
State and federal funds for water infrastructure upgrades are essential for communities trying to provide drinking water that is safe and affordable, said Mark Vanderpool, city manager of Sterling Heights, a Detroit suburb.
“We have a relatively new water system, so we don’t have some of the challenges that older communities face,” Vanderpool said. “Nevertheless, our infrastructure needs are massive and daunting, to say the least.”
Vicki Putala, vice president of OHM Advisors, said the current amount of funding available for water infrastructure improvements is unprecedented.
“We want to ensure that everybody in Michigan has access to safe, reliable drinking water,” Putala said, “and the MI Water Navigator program will help us achieve that.”