Want to open the faucet and see brown, gritty, unsafe water? Move to St. Joseph, Louisiana, where the town’s water system is irreparably fouled by decades of neglect. The impoverished town is not alone, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting:
“St. Joseph, population 1,029, is one of thousands of small towns across the country that have no access to safe, clean drinking water. The reason: The towns can’t afford it.”
The state of Louisiana stepped in to fund a new water system for St. Joseph. Many other towns turn to the Rural Utilities Service, a USDA program that disburses loans and grants to small towns (population 10,000 or less) for water systems. Or did – Trump’s budget will close down the entire program.
The USDA Rural Utilities Service budget last year — FY 2017 — was only $498 million. This year the Trump administration budget cuts out the program entirely. Zero dollars. Zero help for small towns. Zero future for a program that has been wildly successful.
The Center for Investigative Reporting found that a typical Rural Utilities Service project cost about $1.4 million and served a community of about 1,500 people. Since 2009, the program has made almost 16,000 loans. Small towns repay those loans on time. The Rural Utilities Service has a delinquency rate far below the average for regular bank loans to businesses. From its 2016 annual report:
“Since 2009, we have funded $13.9 billion for 5,825 projects that will provide such access to 19.5 million rural residents. In fiscal year (FY) 2016 we funded 945 projects and technical assistance and training (TAT) grants totaling $1.8 billion. These investments will improve the quality of life for more than 2.2 million rural residents. Seventy-seven percent of those dollars were in the form of loans that rural communities will repay with interest over the next 40 years. Our portfolio remains strong, with 15,853 loans totaling over $12 billion and a .43 percent delinquency rate.”
(In Minnesota, communities got $34,542,000 in loans and $15,071,816 in grants in FY2016, for a total of $49,613,816.)
So why is the Trump administration abolishing this successful program? According to the Center for Investigative Reporting:
“’The Administration believes that (the Environmental Protection Agency) or private sector sources should fund this activity,’ said a note in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018. That reflects the view of the libertarian Cato Institute, which in a 2016 report called rural subsidy programs ‘unneeded duplication’ and ‘an unfair redistribution of wealth.’
“Yet at the same time, Trump’s budget also would slash EPA funds that help pay for state water inspectors and enforcers. The White House wants them cut by nearly 45 percent, from the 2017 total of nearly $1.1 billion to $597 million. The administration suggests that states could seek other funding sources, impose fees or simply do less – ‘reducing or eliminating additional activities not required under Federal law.’”
Small towns need more, not less funding. Even with the Rural Utilities Service, the combination of local, state, and federal resources fell far short of the amount needed to fix problems and make sure that all Americans have access to clean drinking water.
I’ve traveled in countries where the water was not safe to drink, or to use for brushing your teeth, or for washing vegetables. Is that what we want for rural America? Trump’s budget is one step in that direction.