- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s top water infrastructure official says that changes made in the past two years are helping to streamline the funding process for local water systems and identify needs around the state.

The state’s Division of Water Infrastructure was created in 2013 to combine oversight of five key federal and state loan and grant programs for local drinking water and sewer systems. Previously, the funds had been overseen by multiple agencies, making it complicated for some local officials to get the money they needed.

“The idea was to consolidate those and make it a one-stop shop and make it so much more efficient,” said Kim Colson, the director of the division.

Colson said the state is developing a master plan for its water and sewer needs, and it’s important to be proactive considering that some pipes in North Carolina communities date back nearly a century.

“When you look at a lot of our old lines, even if the pipe is in good shape, a lot of times our expectations for the level of service for those lines today is different than what it was,” he said.

One of the funding sources the division oversees is the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which uses federal money to help local water systems finance improvements. Nationally, it’s the largest federal aid program for improving the country’s drinking water system. An Associated Press review of data shows that every state has a balance of unused money in its fund.

Colson says the fund has become more efficient since his division took it over. In 2012, the year before the division was created, nearly $89 million in the fund sat unspent. In 2015, that figure dropped to $41 million, or less than 10 percent of the overall fund.

“We want to be one of the most efficient states in terms of utilizing those funds. I think we’re on a path to accomplishing that,” Colson said.

That and the other funding sources Colson’s division oversees are most frequently used by small- and medium-sized communities, while larger municipalities often use bonds to fund infrastructure improvements.

Nationwide, increased attention has been put on the aging underground network of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses. In some states, farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, drought has taken its toll on reservoirs and aging pipes have ruptured.

Colson said a key priority for North Carolina water systems is examining their distribution to reduce leaks. While the state hasn’t suffered the extreme dry conditions in recent years that have plagued the West, such measures protect water supplies from future droughts.

“It’s great drought mitigation,” he said.

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