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‘Unimaginable’: $250M EPA loan provides critical boost to Springfield Water and Sewer Commission projects

By Peter Goonan |
SPRINGFIELD — Less than two years ago, Springfield Water and Sewer Commission executive director Josh Schimmel said, it was “unimaginable” that the commission would secure a $250 million low-interest federal loan for critical infrastructure projects.

On Thursday, he and commission staff gathered with local, state and federal officials at Bondi’s Island to formally accept the loan. Construction is underway there on one of the projects supported by the loan, which involves pipes crossing the Connecticut River.

The money will assist with capital improvements totaling $500 million to protect the water system, ensure water quality and improve sewage control. Those projects will help save millions of dollars and create over 1,700 jobs, officials said.

“It’s the first time in a generation, really, where we see this kind of opportunity,” Schimmel said. “We are facing an unprecedented and unavoidable need for reinvestment in our century-old drinking water and wastewater systems.”

The $250 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan will help achieve “critical” improvements over an accelerated six-year schedule rather than 15 years, Schimmel said. It will help ensure regulatory compliance, reduce the risk of failing infrastructure, and make improvements affordable for the commission and its customers, he said.

“That’s the WIFIA program, and it is truly an innovative program and it’s allowing us to do more, and allowing us to do it faster, do it cheaper,” Schimmel said.

The remaining cost of improvements will be funded by a combination of a $200 million loan from the Massachusetts Clean Water State Revolving fund and system funds, officials said.

U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, chairman of House Committee on Ways and Means, and Radhika Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water, were among officials gathered to praise the Water and Sewer Commission for its efforts to protect and improve the regional water and wastewater system.

“An investment in infrastructure is an investment in our future and today’s announcement reinforces that,” Neal said. “This unprecedented investment will help build back our region’s drinking water and wastewater systems to be more sustainable and resilient in the face of climate change, protect public health and our environment from the risk of infrastructure failure, and maintain the long-term affordability of these critical services.”

Fox praised the commission and its staff for its success in securing the loan from the competitive WIFIA program. It is estimated to save the commission and its ratepayers approximately $60 million in borrowing costs over the next 30 years, she said.

“What we know at the EPA is these types of investments in water infrastructure are one of the best bets that we can make in the nation to both support the environment but also to create jobs and set the stage for long-term economic development,” Fox said. “And that’s what Springfield is doing today.”

Mayor Domenic Sarno said that water can be taken for granted as people routinely turn on the taps in their homes. He and others mentioned the ongoing problems with lead contamination in the water in Flint, Michigan. Springfield has one of the best water systems in the country, Sarno said, and the commission works hard to keep that distinction.

Major projects listed under the commission’s water and wastewater infrastructure renewal program include:

- construction of a new treatment facility at West Parish Filters Water Treatment Plant, and and other plant upgrades to permanently resolve disinfection byproduct issues and improve drinking water quality ($168 million)
- the new York Street pump station and Connecticut River crossing project, that includes replacement of a 1930s-era pump station and construction of three new wastewater conveyance pipes across the Connecticut River ($137 million)
- biological nutrient removal upgrades at the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility, to upgrade the plant’s 1970s-era aeration system, electrical system and solids removal equipment to improve energy efficiency, safety conditions and regulatory compliance ($68.2 million)
- drinking water distribution and sewer pipe upgrades, which are prioritized based on age and potential for failure ($31 million)