USA - There’s big climate money out there for small towns. But will they get it?
How advocates are helping understaffed communities field complicated federal grants.
This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station.
Tybee Island in Georgia has a rain problem.
The small barrier island’s stormwater system, fed by storm drains across the coastal community, funnels into a pipe that comes out on the beach at the southern tip of Tybee. But that pipe gets regularly buried by sand.
“What happens is when it gets covered with sand, and the tide rises, there’s nowhere for the stormwater to go,” said Alan Robertson, a Tybee resident and consultant for the city.
The water backs up in the system and wells up out of the drains, flooding the roads. It’s a chronic problem, he said, that the city is trying to solve.
“The city has to clear this every day,” Roberston said.
Tybee’s not alone. All over the country, old stormwater systems struggle to keep up with increased rainfall due to climate change. Rising sea levels and groundwater — also from climate change — squeeze the systems from the other end. Infrastructure like roads, hospitals and wastewater plants need to be shored up against flooding. Residents need protection from heat, wildfire, floodwater, and other climate impacts.
All of that is expensive. The good news for local governments tackling these problems is that lots of state and federal money is out there to fund resilience projects. The recent federal infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act are adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the pot.
But there’s also bad news: The money is often hard to actually get, and that difficulty can amplify inequities for communities that need help the most.
“All these great numbers and these great programs means absolutely nothing if communities that need it most can’t have access to it,” said Daniel Blackman, a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The funding often comes through competitive grants, with applications that are complicated and highly technical. They take time and expertise that under-resourced local governments often lack.
“One of the major capacity constraints of a lot of these local governments are that they have few grant writers on staff,” said Michael Dexter, director of federal programs for the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network.
Local government staff with plenty of work on their plates can often struggle to keep track of the different funding opportunities, coordinate the necessary partners, or come up with the local match funding some grants require.