- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island is the farthest off track of all the states from meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of spending the money in a key drinking water program by next year’s deadline, according to federal data reviewed by The Associated Press.

The state has more than $16 million sitting unspent from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund - 9.4 percent of what it has been allocated - putting Rhode Island above the national average of 6.2 percent.

The EPA says it would take Rhode Island years to spend the leftover cash in the federal assistance fund for water infrastructure improvements. Rhode Island spends the least of all the states, according to the EPA.

But state officials insist they’ll have the backlog used up by September 2016, largely because of a $26.6 million loan for a new building for Providence Water.

Nationwide, it’s expected to cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion.

Despite that need, more $1 billion is sitting unspent in drinking water loan accounts across the country, largely because of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems, the AP review found.

The major projects in Rhode Island that are going to be funded early next year, in addition to Providence Water, include the construction of a new water treatment plant in Woonsocket, new wells and the rehabilitation of a storage tank in Cumberland and a pumping station replacement in Portsmouth, according to the state Department of Health.

The department estimates that Rhode Island will need approximately $800 million over the next two decades for drinking water infrastructure improvements. All of the water systems in the state that serve 3,000 customers or more have to do infrastructure replacement planning, the department said.

A spokeswoman for Providence Water has said the water supplier wants a new operations facility to consolidate its operations and be located more centrally in the capital city.

It’s an expensive project because the building will need to be rehabilitated after it’s purchased, said June Swallow, chief of the center for drinking water quality at the state Health Department, which regulates approximately 500 public water systems in the state.

The state has a list of priority water infrastructure projects that are pending. Providence Water is last on the list of 40 projects.

“There is a list of projects on the priority list that are a reflection of need, but also which water systems are ready to move forward with loans this year,” Swallow said. “The ones that would rise to the top are ones that are correcting immediate public health issues.”

It appears there’s unspent money in the fund because there’s a lag time between when a loan is awarded and when the money is spent, said William Sequino, executive director of the RI Infrastructure Bank, the agency that coordinates with the DOH to administer loans.

“It’s a timing problem for us,” Sequino said.

The bank has encouraged water suppliers to accelerate their construction schedules, he said.

All 40 projects on the state’s list have already begun or are expected to start within the next two years, the Health Department said.

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