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Sarah Waring: Investing in the Earth is investing in rural development

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This commentary is by Sarah Waring, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

Earth Day and Green Up Day are the perfect occasions to reflect on Vermont’s environmental history and future. The Clean Water Law (Act 64), Universal Composting Law (Act 48) and the recent Environmental Justice law (S.148) are all evidence of a focus on shared natural resources that Vermonters embrace. 

It’s also fitting that these holidays — when we pick up road trash, go on nature hikes and advocate for sustained and sustainable change through our elected leaders — arrive as crocuses bloom and mud season finally loosens its mucky grip. 

When the Earth wakes, it is an important moment to recognize the critical function rural communities serve as both stewards of the environment and bedrocks of the economy.    

Rural fields, rivers and forests are the source of the food we eat, the water we drink and the energy we use. Today, the small communities that oversee and manage these resources remain the key to our nation’s success because they will drive the production and power the solutions to our country’s most daunting challenges. While our economy is now global — as the supply chain issues illustrate for us most effectively — it is also true that the future is in rural America.  

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill spearheaded by the Biden-Harris Administration, Congress is funding rural America with more than $1,200,000,000,000. Eleven zeroes represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the lives of rural residents safer, healthier and more robust. 

Among other benefits, this economic commitment provides rural communities with the foundational support they need to create local work opportunities. When we invest in the fundamentals of community development — like expanded wastewater, new homes and essential facilities — we create jobs over the long term.  

Earlier this month, senior leaders in the Biden-Harris Administration embarked on a road trip across the country to listen and learn directly from rural citizens how historic levels of federal funding can best help their communities. The “Building a Better America Rural Infrastructure Tour” was part of the effort to refocus the nation’s attention on the value and importance of rural people and places.  

For USDA Rural Development in Vermont, new investments will build on our existing portfolio. The USDA Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program provides rural communities with technical assistance and financing necessary to develop drinking water and waste-disposal systems. Safe drinking water and sanitary disposal are vital to public health, economic development and a healthy ecosystem.  

In Montpelier, the community environmental-stewardship plans include a net-zero energy target by 2030. Through Rural Development-funded upgrades, anerobic digesters allow for high-strength organic waste from area farms and restaurants to run the facility and send excess power into the local grid. This “organics-to-energy” design-build model reduces operating costs, greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.  

In Vergennes, our agency recently finalized $17.5 million in funding for an upgraded wastewater system, improved sewer segments and rehabbed pump station. This overhaul will eliminate discharge into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain, resulting in a significant improvement to public health and safety, and sustained protection of our state’s most precious natural resource. 

The long-term growth and development of Vermont’s “Littlest City” is being championed by residents and community leaders who care about the environment and their impact on it.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will continue to focus billions in funding for modern wastewater systems, high-speed internet, safe roads and bridges, reliable and affordable electricity, and clean energy and drinking water. And it will continue to advance the kinds of projects that Vermonters desire, because they reduce our global environmental footprint while creating jobs.

In Bridport, Aegis Renewable Energy is leasing roof space on a local dairy for a solar array that generates 88kW, while in Manchester, an additional 330,000 kW are generated through Green Power Farms’ installation of three wind turbines. Clean energy, energy efficiency and even weatherization to reduce fuel use are all part of the new and ongoing investments in rural communities. 

In St. Johnsbury recently, the Fairbanks Museum was finally able to break ground on the start of its Tang Science Annex, an addition that will include an elevator, expanded science exhibit spaces, and a co-location of a Community College of Vermont campus site. This expansion will be built  with local eastern hemlock, and this cross-laminated timber construction material — called “mass timber” — can help launch the revitalization of the Northeast’s softwood industry. Climate-smart agriculture, forestry and bio-based economic development are all part of this infrastructure initiative.  

Ultimately, the investments we’re making now will ensure everyone in rural Vermont has opportunities to succeed, and that they can find them at home — today and for generations to come. I’m proud of this focus on new infrastructure that will advance the goals of economic development, quality of life and environmental stewardship. 

This is a time of unprecedented federal funding into rural America, and our neighbors today and children tomorrow deserve our best efforts to make the places they live healthier, more affordable, economically strong and ecologically sound. It is the moment to invest in our rural communities, and by doing so, invest in our planet.

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