Eau Claire County funding solar projects, water testing with pandemic-relief money

Dec. 25—EAU CLAIRE — Adding solar panels atop two county buildings and boosting testing of drinking water are the latest projects Eau Claire County officials are funding with federal pandemic relief dollars.

At last week's County Board meeting, supervisors voted 19-1 — nine were absent that evening — to pay for those initiatives with $527,933 from the county's allocation of American Recovery Plan Act money.

The projects were recommended by the county's Administration Committee, which reviewed multiple proposals for how to spend the few unallocated funds left from the $20.3 million in federal funds the county was awarded in 2021.

"Those had bubbled to the top," Nancy Coffey, a county supervisor who serves on that committee, said of the selected projects.

For $275,000, solar panels will be installed on top of the Human Services Department wing of the Courthouse in Eau Claire and on the roof of the Eau Claire County Agriculture & Resource Center in Altoona.

The solar panels will offset the two buildings' power bills by generating clean energy, which will also help the county government toward its goal of being carbon-neutral and running on renewable energy by 2050.

With roof repairs happening now at the Courthouse and planned next year at the Altoona building, Coffey said it's timely and cost-effective to also add solar panels.

"It makes sense to do the solar at the time you're doing those repairs," she said.

The remaining $252,933 of ARPA funds allocated at Tuesday's County Board meeting will be used to buy new water testing equipment and provide free well tests to 200 rural residents.

Of that, $155,000 is going toward the purchase and installation of a sophisticated lab instrument that will analyze water samples for certain metals. The Eau Claire City-County Health Department requested the equipment, stating in a memo that it would make for faster and more cost-effective testing for multiple contaminants in private and municipal water samples.

The remaining $97,933 from last week's ARPA allocation is for testing 200 private wells in the county for a wide variety of water contaminants. Those test results will then be analyzed by UW-Eau Claire researchers in a study to identify any potential issues with drinking water in rural areas.

"What we're trying to do with this private testing of wells is we're trying to get a database throughout the county," Coffey said.

The tests would be free to county residents, and Coffey noted the results could help them apply for state grants to help mitigate problems found in private wells.

Following last week's decision to fund the projects, the county now has $428,794 left to allocate from its American Recovery Plan Act dollars, Coffey said.

Allocations of the federal funds previously made by the County Board are being used for rural broadband development, grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations hurt by the pandemic, and reducing county borrowing for capital projects.

The federal dollars have to be allocated by the end of 2024, per rules included in the act.