NASHVILLE — This is one national ranking Tennessee officials are not likely to boast about any time soon.
As of July, Tennessee had the highest percentage nationally of unspent money from a federal program used to improve the nation’s local drinking water systems and ensure the water flowing through your tap is reliable and safe.
The national figures, compiled by The Associated Press, show that of the estimated $194.2 million in cumulative funds Tennessee received since 2011 under the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, 15.67 percent remains unspent.
That comes to $30.44 million for the program that provides low-to-no-interest loans to dozens of local water systems across Tennessee. While other states like California had higher actual unspent dollar amounts, Tennessee had the highest percentage.
The AP review shows project delays, poor management in some states and other factors have contributed to nearly $1.1 billion in unspent money when it comes to states’ collective accounts nationally. The money is used to help communities fund public water projects ranging from new drinking water plants to replacing or upgrading old delivery structures like pipes.
By comparison, nearby Alabama’s unspent funds — $5.7 million — represent just 2.8 percent of the estimated cumulative $200 million in federal funds the state received from 2011 to 2015. Georgia’s unspent percentage was 7 percent, or $24.43 million out of $348.7 million.
Last year, EPA’s inspector general issued a report saying its examination showed that in some states the unused funds resulted in “missed opportunities.” It also noted that “when loans are not issued, intended drinking water improvements may not be implemented and states lose opportunities to infuse funds into their economy and create jobs.”
For the past several years, EPA officials have been nudging states to put the money to use more quickly.
Tennessee officials insist the situation here isn’t as bad as it appears. The “unobligated” fund balance actually was obligated but was “artificially inflated” due to a previously accepted accounting method used by Tennessee, said Eric Ward, a spokesman with the state Department of Environment and Conservation.
“For example,” Ward said, “if you consider a loan to a drinking water utility for $2 million made in 2011, all contractor charges for that work would be paid from the 2011 EPA Drinking Water capitalization grant, even if the construction work required four years to complete.”
He said that while the $2 million for the project was obligated, “it would not show up as an obligation to EPA until the utility actually incurred costs and charges were ultimately made against the 2011 EPA Drinking Water capitalization grant.”