- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - When voters in the south-central Idaho city of Jerome refused to pass a wastewater bond, it meant the town’s raw sewage would continue to flow into a canal and then into the Snake River.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded by citing the Clean Water Act and proposing millions of dollars in fines.

Ultimately, a district court judge in 2013 ruled that required upgrades met legal standards needed to bypass voter approval and authorized $35.8 million for plant improvements. Earlier this year, the city signed a consent decree with the EPA in federal court to improve its wastewater system.

The money Jerome is using is some of the half a billion dollars that Idaho communities have received in low-interest loans and grants from the federal government over the last 15 years to pay for improvements to sewage plants.

The EPA in a report released earlier this year lauds the state’s efforts in managing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help communities solve wastewater problems with fixes that can often strain both city and individual budgets.

“It’s basically worked miracles in helping small communities get these projects off the ground,” said Mark MacIntyre of the Environmental Protection Agency. “We’ll do whatever we need to do to fulfill our mission to protect water quality. Our preference is that communities take advantage of the state water fund and do what they need to do to invest in the future.”

Idaho receives about $7 million each year in federal seed money that’s added to the roughly $500 million that has already been loaned out and is being paid back into the fund.

The state keeps a running list of priorities for the money that must be quickly loaned out again for new projects.

Currently at the top of the list for the fiscal year that runs July 1 through June 30 of 2016 is the northern Idaho city of Coeur d’Alene. That city needs $20 million to improve its collection and treatment system. Terms of the loan are 20 years with a 2.75 percent interest rate.

The tiny city of Kellogg in northern Idaho is second on the list, needing $10 million to refurbish or replace its collection system. That loan is for 30 years at 2.78 percent. In southwest Idaho, the city of Notus is looking to improve treatment and reduce collection line leakage at a cost of about $2 million. The 30-year loan has a 1.75 percent interest rate.

Bryan Fiedorczyk, the EPA’s liaison for Idaho’s revolving fund, said the agency prefers low-interest loans rather than grants. “When you don’t have to pay something back you kind of get a little bit fuzzy with the effectiveness,” he said.

Jerome received $22 million through the program with an interest rate of 1.5 percent. City leaders in the fall of 2013 voted to increase sewer bills to pay for it.

“The rates have essentially doubled for our residents,” said City Administrator Mike Williams, who took the job after the city ran into trouble with the EPA. “It’s not easy for the community”

Gilbert Sanchez, the city’s wastewater superintendent also hired after the EPA got involved, said the city has in place now storage areas to prevent any more raw sewage from entering the Snake River. He also said work is underway to modernize systems in the plant, and the project is expected to be finished by 2018, if not sooner.

“The (monthly bill) rates we have now are rates that should have taken place over the course of 20 years,” he said. “(Cities) should be looking ahead, just like we all do in our budget.”

The Idaho counties with communities receiving the most money through the program over the last 15 years have been Kootenai county with $80 million, Bannock with $57 million, and Bonneville with $40 million.

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