LB1205 could send $20 million for wastewater plant


A bill making its way through the Nebraska Legislature may provide up to $20 million to help pay for Seward’s new wastewater treatment facility.

If passed, LB 1205 would allocate unused federal COVID relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Officials say that $20 million could go a long way in supporting the $34 million treatment plant Seward needs in order to maintain its current growth trajectory and remain in compliance with state regulations.

“This is the type of project that fits with what those ARPA funds were for,” said Sen. Jana Hughes of Seward, who introduced the bill Jan. 16.

The bill was referred to the Appropriations Committee and is set for a public hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 1:30 p.m. in Room 1003 at the State Capitol.

The money would come from ‘leftover’ ARPA dollars – allocations that weren’t spent as they were initially intended.

The legislature reallocated $184.4 million in ARPA money in its 2023-2025 budget, and the money has to be allocated to other projects by the end of this year.

“As a state, if we don’t use this, it goes back to the (U.S.) Treasury,” Hughes said. “If there’s a need and a use for it in Nebraska, I feel like we should take advantage.”

A large chunk of ARPA funds were allocated to update drinking water infrastructure in Nebraska communities.

Seward City Administrator Greg Butcher said those grants have been plentiful – they’re helping to pay for Seward’s new water tower and have assisted Milford, Utica and other small towns in Seward County with water projects.

Finding grants for wastewater projects, though, has been a different story, Butcher said.

“Unfortunately for us, a lot of the money that came through ARPA was directed at drinking water systems,” he said.

Seward began planning for a new wastewater facility in 2009, knowing the planning and design phases would take years.

“Pre-pandemic, we were expecting a $12 million facility,” Butcher said.

With the rising cost of materials and labor, supply chain disruptions and inflation since COVID-19 hit in 2020, the cost of the plant has nearly tripled to $32-$34 million.

“That’s a major increase,” Butcher said.

Design plans for the plant are 90% complete, but the city officially hit pause on the project in 2023 until it could find funding other than through user rates.

“We want to make sure we turn over every stone possible for funding to keep the cost down for ratepayers, otherwise that’s the only money we have available,” Butcher said.

The city increased wastewater rates by 15% in each of the past two fiscal years to begin building up money to pay for the facility.

“If we don’t get some of this funding, the people who live in town are going to have to pay for it,” Hughes said.

Butcher said the plan for the new facility is fairly basic.

“We’re building to the state standards. We’re not building a facility to take on thousands and thousands of new residents and industries,” Butcher said. “We’re not building anything extravagant. We’re using the most economical process.”

The city considered three different types of systems for a new plant and chose the most cost-efficient model with the smallest environmental impact – a sequencing batch reactor system.

Butcher said if the city does nothing to update its current facility – built in the 1950s – the state could mandate the construction of a new plant and restrict industrial or residential growth until the city comes back into compliance.

Similar projects have passed the legislature in the last two years. A 2022 bill sent $20 million to North Platte to help pay for a wastewater facility associated with the Sustainable Beef LLC meat processing site, and senators approved $10 million last year for a sewer project in Sarpy County.

Butcher said Seward is well-situated for funding because of its agricultural setting and array of ag-based businesses that would use the wastewater facility.

On Feb. 6, the Seward City Council approved the hiring of lobbying firm Neilan Strategy Group for $10,000 to lobby in favor of LB1205.

Butcher said spending $10,000 for the possibility of $20 million would be worth it to take the pressure off ratepayers.

“We want to make sure someone’s in there working on behalf of the City of Seward,” he said. “We guarantee everyone will benefit from this if we can secure some funding.”