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State Aid for Water Infrastructure Falls; Extreme Rain Events Rise

New Hampshire towns looking to improve their environmental infrastructure – think drinking, storm-water, and wastewater projects – can go to the State to get some help paying for those projects. But since 2008 the State hasn’t been able to fund its part of the deal, and as the weather gets wilder, that could mean trouble down the road.

In 2008, the small town of Jaffrey completed construction of a brand-new wastewater treatment plant, says selectman Don MacIssac.

It meant cleaner water for the town, but it came with a hefty price tag.

MacIssac: So the Jaffrey project was an $18 million dollar project.

But voters in Jaffrey bit the bullet and paid for the plant; partly because they were told that the state would be picking up about $6 million of the bill.

But that didn’t happen.

Since 2008 funding for what’s called the State Aid Grant program has been slashed from the budget.

MacIssac: In my opinion, I would say that the town would not have approved it had we not had the feeling we would get a grant. We felt we had the assurance that we would get a State Aid Grant.

MacIssac says the state’s unpaid portion amounts to an extra $96 dollars a year for the average taxpayer in Jaffrey.

And Jaffrey is not alone: the Local Government Center says there are more than a hundred projects that have been completed and had their state payment deferred. All told there are about $43 million dollars worth of projects that haven’t been given the promised grants.

The Chairman of the Finance Committee Dan Weyler says when the budget priorities were laid out, these grants weren’t as important as other budget items. He says if the fiscal picture changes, perhaps full funding of the State Aid Grants will be revisited another.

The LGC’s Tim Fortier says since the funding cut fewer towns are applying for money.

Fortier: Some communities think that the program has been concluded… has closed.

The longer that communities wait to update their water infrastructure, the more those updates will eventually cost.

For one, the cost of labor and materials will rise.

But also, there’s increasing evidence that the state’s entire storm-water infrastructure might be undersized.

Mooney: In seconds it went from nothing to just the wind, the rain

Ruth Mooney is a selectwoman in Belmont who attended a recent event hosted by Environment New Hampshire.

Mooney: My husband was outside under our carport and by the time he got inside he was drenched.

This past Fourth of July, Belmont experienced a microburst: an extreme wind and rain event.

A report out this week from Environment New Hampshire finds that over the past fifty years the instance of extreme rain events has more than doubled. And Jim Rubens, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains that without improved storm-water infrastructure to handle big rain storms, they can get very expensive.

Rubens: In my town of Hanover, New Hampshire, we had a 20 minute microburst that wiped out a million and half dollars worth of roads, and the taxpayers in my town saw a town portion property tax increase of ten percent two years running to repair those roads.

State Aid Grants most often deal with wastewater improvements, but with heavy rainfalls events becoming more common, that focus could shift to storm water.

To update an aging storm water infrastructure New Hampshire towns and cities will need all the help they can get. The Department of Environmental Services has estimated that the cost of updating the Granite State’s culverts and catch basins could approach a billion dollars.

The Local Government Center’s Tim Fortier notes that getting taxpayers to pony up for water infrastructure is not easy.

Fortier: because it is an invisible layer of infrastructure, they’re not as transparent as potholes on roads, or bridges.

And without the promise of a 20 percent helping hand from the state, that type of investment might be even harder to sell to voters.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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