MOUNTAINBURG -- This Crawford County town has received the money it needed to provide drinking water to about 625 households.
Mayor Susan Wilson told residents at a public meeting Wednesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development awarded the town $7.4 million for its proposed water infrastructure project. This includes $5.7 million in grant money and $1.7 million in loans.
"I didn't know whether to scream or cry or faint when they called me and said, 'You got it,'" Wilson said after a round of applause from the audience.
Wilson said the project wouldn't have been viable if the federal agency, the county and the state hadn't awarded Mountainburg the money to do it. She was notified of the $7.4 million award Jan. 27.
Households between Mountainburg and Cedarville from the Washington County line south to Rudy aren't served by any water system, Wilson said. Residents get water from wells or an outside source, such as the Lake Fort Smith Water Treatment Plant in Mountainburg. Mountainburg buys water from Fort Smith.
Wes LeMonier of the Van Buren-based firm Hawkins-Weir Engineers has said the project proposed to furnish these people with water will add 68 miles of pipe from Mountainburg's water distribution system to households in the affected area, as well as build infrastructure such as three water storage tanks, pressure-reducing valves and a new pump station. The project will improve three existing pump stations as well.
LeMonier estimated construction will take two years. The project covers about 54 square miles and is estimated to cost more than $13.4 million. Hawkins-Weir developed the project in collaboration with a committee of people who own property in the affected area.
Royal Wade Kimes, who put the committee together with fellow property owner Cliff Hubbs, said he believes the water project will lead to growth and increased activity in the area, as well as more businesses coming in.
"I mean, this is so long in coming," Kimes said. "I'll tell you what it's like: whenever you do the impossible, you can't believe you've done it. That's what it is, and everybody's elated."
Lori Rogers, who holds the Ward 2, Position 2 seat on the City Council, likewise said she thinks the project will be "great" for the people who live in the area.
"It's people that cannot go to their faucet and get a drink of water or a bath," Rogers said. "It's just unreasonable in this time of 2023. It's just kind of unreal."
Rogers added the project will also raise property values as another benefit.
The Crawford County Quorum Court and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission each awarded Mountainburg $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan money for the water project in 2022.
The $2.5 million from the county came with the stipulation the money would remain in the county's American Rescue Plan fund and be redistributed if the project wasn't fully funded by Nov. 30, a deadline that was later extended to Feb. 28.
The $2.5 million from the state requires construction for the water project to start by Dec. 31 and be completed by Dec. 31, 2026, according to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture website. It also came with a 25% required cost-share match, something Wilson said in December the city intended to cover with Rural Development loan money.
The Road Ahead
Wilson said the next step is for Crawford County to apply for $1 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on Mountainburg's behalf.
LeMonier said the money would cover connecting low-to-moderate income residents to the planned water system and bringing their plumbing up to state standards. Any leftover money would go to project costs.
Area residents who apply for a free connection would still be responsible for paying the monthly water bills, according to Wilson. The county is required to hold a public hearing to notify residents it's applying for the block grant money as part of its application process. This is set to take place at the county courthouse in Van Buren at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 21.
The Fort Smith-based Western Arkansas Planning and Development District will finalize Crawford County's application for the money in March, before the commission's April 14 deadline. Wilson anticipates the commission notifying participants of grant awards in July.
In addition, Wilson said the Agriculture Department will ask for the signed water-user agreements Mountainburg collected from property owners in the affected area.
Wilson had set a goal of obtaining 400 agreements and matching $100 deposits to show the water project would be sustainable if financing was approved for it. The deposits, which are included in the project's cost, will serve as the participants' "buy-in" for construction.
The town collected 354 agreements and deposits as of Wednesday, she said.
She said the city will look at acquiring property for necessary installations for the project, such as water towers.
LeMonier said the city will also get property easements to put in the water system and do a study to identify what the water rates for customers on the system need to be to help cover expenses in accordance with state law. Rural Development will give the final determination for the rates.
"I would say $60 a month is going to be an average," Wilson said.
Wilson said the water project will hopefully be put out to bid in November. The City Council is tentatively set to award the project to a bidder Dec. 11, with construction starting afterward and scheduled to conclude by December 2025, according to LeMonier.
Lack of agreement
Residents in north-central Crawford County who didn’t provide, or have not provided, Mountainburg a signed water-user agreement and $100 deposit will have to pay a tap fee if they want to have their property connected to the water project. This fee is expected to be between $1,500 and $2,500.
Source: Mountainburg Mayor Susan Wilson