New Mexico among states to receive USDA aid for projects in rural areas

·3 min read

May 22—New Mexico is among the states that will receive federal loan and grant money through the Rural Partners Network to bolster projects that help underserved rural communities, the U.S. Agriculture Department secretary said Monday.

A nearly $61 million loan will be available to the Farmers Electric Cooperative, based in Clovis, to help connect 738 households and build 161 miles of power lines.

A $950,000 grant has been approved to aid the city of Sunland Park in building a public safety complex, which will include a new fire station and police headquarters in the Southern New Mexico town.

New Mexico State University will receive a $100,000 grant to conduct a dozen audits of rural energy producers to improve their efficiency and install renewable energy systems.

In all, $394 million has been earmarked to assist 52 projects in rural communities in 10 states and Puerto Rico.

In the West, the funding will help tribal communities improve water and wastewater services and bring solar power and other forms of renewable energy to their lands and farms.

"We're excited about this initiative," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Monday news conference. "I think it's going to help make that investment in rural America to help strengthen and rebuild the middle class in rural America."

The funding dovetails with the rural clean energy program the White House unveiled last week, he said, referring to the $11 billion in grants and loans the administration is making available to help utilities bring greener energy to rural communities.

Meanwhile, the agency announced Monday it will dispense $265 million for 28 emergency watershed protection projects in the aftermath of extreme weather events. That includes recovery efforts for New Mexico's Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which destroyed more than 500 homes, scorched a 540 square-mile area and caused extensive damage on watersheds.

The Rural Partners Network has been an important player in getting money to the communities, officials said.

Launched last year, the network has more than 20 federal agencies in the 10 states and Puerto Rico working to improve rural communities' infrastructure, education, food systems, broadband access and business growth, according to the agency's news release.

In all, there are 800 partners in the network seeking to reverse decades of poverty in these areas, Vilsack said.

One the network's key tasks is to analyze a community's needs and provide technical guidance to those who might have difficulty navigating federal programs and applying for funding, said Caitlin Cain, director of nonprofit Rural LISC, which works to strengthen these communities.

Steering through the federal system is even more challenging in areas that lack both broadband and people familiar with the programs, Cain said, adding the network attempts to simplify the process.

"It serves as a bridge providing capacity and connection to communities that would otherwise miss out on federal investment opportunities," she said.

Matthew Holmes, CEO of the National Rural Water Association, said residents, technical consultants, local governments and nonprofits have worked together for a long time to upgrade infrastructure in rural areas and now will have more funding to tackle the problems.

"Perhaps most importantly, long-term assistance can be provided to move the needle," Holmes said. "The most deserving recipients of these services have been dealing with these challenges for generations."