BLOOMER — Christmas comes early, at least for rural communities like Bloomer that have been waiting for water infrastructure improvements for years

During a visit to the city’s water treatment facility, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced rural Wisconsin communities will be the recipients of $114.5 million to build and improve critical infrastructure. The investments, which are a component of the Build Back Better initiative, are intended expand access to clean water and reliable electricity.

Bloomer, like many rural towns, has extensive issues with lead piping that poses a threat to the community’s well-being, but particularly to children in key stages of their physical and psychological development. Bloomer will receive $27.6 million under the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program to replace all lead service lines, lead-jointed water main pipes and sanitary sewer mains in the next few years.

“You can’t keep taking from the land. You have to give something back or the land will stop producing. And that notion of giving back has contributed to making sure that that the next generation gets to enjoy the benefits,” Vilsack said. “That’s really what we’re talking about here. Because the improvements that are going to be made here today and over the next couple of years aren’t just improvements for the next two or three or four or five years. They’re potentially improvements that will benefit this community for 100 years.”

These public works projects have been hailed as an investment for public health and rural economies. Bloomer is one of 359 recipients in 46 states that will receive $5.2 billion to promote clean water, reliable electricity and internet broadband expansion.

At the press event, government officials and community advocates applauded the rural focus of the initiative.

“The importance of rural infrastructure is sometimes forgotten. That’s been forgotten about the last few years,” said Chris Groh, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association. “Through this funding, it goes to show that rural America is beginning to count again in the United States.”

A common theme was the benefit for children. Long-term lead toxicity in drinking water has been tied to cognitive and behavioral impairment in school-age children, often for life. With this in mind, educators and pediatric representatives touted the investment as one that will echo for generations.

Nationwide, Vilsack said clean water projects like Bloomer’s will impact 400,000 schools and more than 10 million students in rural communities.

“From our perspective, a project like this is so important because without safe and clean drinking water, we have to completely shift the way we do things. we may have to shut our schools down if they don’t have safe drinking water until we can come up with another plan,” said Brian Misfeldt, superintendent of the Bloomer School District. “It’s comforting for us to know that that’s not something we have to worry about. We can focus on the important job of educating the students for our community.”

Vilsack said the process to determine which cities receive aid and which ones don’t is based on the size, sophistication and quality of public services in a given city, as well as the degree and extensiveness of a contaminated water problem that’s present there.

Historically, rural communities are more susceptible to water quality violations and this issue has only grown more dire and endemic in recent years. Poor regulation of agricultural waste and other pollutants, declining populations, and aging infrastructure all contribute to worsening water conditions dotting the rural landscape.

In the United States, 93% of community water system serve smaller towns, or communities with fewer than 10,000 people. Furthermore, of that, 67% serve populations of fewer than 500 people. As recently as 2015, 9% of all water systems had a documented violation of water quality standards, exposing 21 million people to unhealthy drinking water.

In addition to Bloomer, other regional communities were identified as recipients of the clean water initiative:

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The city of Waterloo will use $21.1 million to replace aging wastewater treatment facility infrastructure and meet current and future effluent limits, including phosphorus. Roughly 3,400 people are estimated to benefit from these improvements.

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The village of Wonewoc will receive $10.1 million to renovate and expand the wastewater treatment facility and address overflow issues. This investment is expected to benefit 816 community members.

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The city of Chetek is the recipient of $20.7 million to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant and address several code violations for residential and commercial structures within 500 feet of the site. Roughly 2,200 people will benefit from these improvements.

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The village of Turtle Lake will receive $21.8 million to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant and sewer system and address excessive phosphorus and chloride concentrations. These improvement will benefit 1,050 people.

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Scenic Rivers Energy Co-op will utilize a $13.2 million loan under the Electric Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program to build 2.2 new miles of line and a new headquarters facilities. Scenic Rivers serves 14,289 consumers over 3,528 miles of line in Grant, Richland, Green, Crawford, Iowa, Lafayette and Vernon counties in Wisconsin, as well as Jo Daviess and Stephenson counties in Illinois.

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