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Serving: IN

Rural Hoosiers need help with costs like wastewater treatment

TAGS: Farm Life
Tom J. Bechman river in Fort Wayne, Ind.
HELP COMING: Notice the crane in the background along one of the rivers in Fort Wayne, Ind. Residents are funding a massive sewer overhaul though a phased-in rate hike.
Poverty has many definitions, and isn’t limited to rural communities in the Southern U.S.

Compared to many people around the world, a huge percentage of Americans are wealthy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who fall through the cracks. Some of those people live in rural communities in Indiana. Agriculture is moving forward, but not everyone who lives in rural Indiana is moving forward with it.

It’s probably not a shock that I don’t typically follow The New York Times. Gary Steinhardt, longtime Purdue University Extension soils specialist, isn’t a subscriber either. But an article someone sent him caught his attention. Steinhardt works closely with educating people who install septic systems. He also teaches Purdue students about land-use planning and issues related to managing infrastructure.

These reasons explain why the article “Mold, possums and sewage: No one should have to live like this,” published in The New York Times on Nov. 14, caught his eye. The story is about black people living in poverty-stricken areas in Alabama. The resident the writer shadowed, who lived in a trailer and died of COVID-19 last summer, couldn’t afford a proper septic system. Communities there don’t have money to install sewer systems.

“You don’t have to go to Alabama to find people who struggle with septic systems, or to find communities that need sewers and sewage treatment plants but can’t afford them,” Steinhardt says. “There are still plenty of homes without properly working septic systems in rural Indiana. There are also small communities that desperately need help in solving sewage management problems. Yet no one seems to step up. In fact, very few people even talk about these problems.”

Raise awareness

To be fair, some rural communities in Indiana have received assistance for these super-costly projects. USDA Rural Development offers a program to help communities, usually either government entities or nonprofit groups, apply for grants and loans to address issues like waste management. Sometimes the trick can be convincing local people to step forward and support these efforts.

If you want to learn more about what USDA Rural Development offers, specifically for sewer or wastewater treatment projects, visit the Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program in Indiana webpage. Applications are being accepted.

These loans and grants have been available for years. Obviously, this is not the answer to every community’s problem. In many cases, it would still involve cash outlay by residents who live in or near small towns and communities.

Some large metropolitan areas in Indiana, like Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, are finally taking action to update ancient sewer infrastructure after years of negotiating with EPA. In Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, for example, long-term projects are underway that include underground tunnels to help store stormwater until it can be treated during big rain events. The alternative is that sewer discharge during these events goes into rivers, some of which are used as sources for drinking water.

While big cities are addressing those issues and a few communities have been aided by federal loans and grants, many rural residents and communities still need help, Steinhardt insists. This is because they have persistent issues with poorly working or nonfunctioning septic systems related to Indiana’s predominantly tight, wet soils.

What’s the answer? It starts with raising awareness that this is a true need for many rural Hoosiers, Steinhardt says. He believes there is a great need for research aimed at finding more economical ways to handle these problems.

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