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Members of the Arkansas Black Mayors Association (ABMA) are set to receive a $95.9 million investment for nineteen watershed projects that will transform Black-led communities across the state.

The association in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agri-culture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) submitted a funding request for infrastructure projects in Arkansas over a year ago. Under the Infra-structure Investment and Jobs Act approved by Congress in November 2021, NRCS received $918 million in funding for three USDA watershed programs.

“The Watershed Project is a game changer for the communities receiving funding,” said Association Executive Director Frank Bateman. ABMA was established in 1972 to help develop, grow, and sustain Black mayors. Currently, there are 55 Black mayors in 27 counties.  “As we viewed pictures of these communities, we realized the importance and need to get the application completed and funded,” he said.

The funding represents a significant investment of discretionary appropriations for these programs and the allotted funding they receive through the federal Farm Bill. Initial project funding selections were made in January 2022, but NRCS has continued accepting funding requests on a rolling basis as long as funds are available.

The initial investment included $420 million for 132 infrastructure projects in 31 states, including the ABMA projects in Arkansas. “This historic award targets historically underserved communities with stormwater runoff and flooding issues. The project for these cities will have a significant and critical impact on the residents that experience regular or flash flooding in their homes, yards, and neighborhood streets, said ABMA President Ethan Dunbar, mayor of Lewisville in south Arkansas.

“We hope this is the beginning of future funding to alleviate these conditions in areas that never seemed to make the funding cut in the past. These underserved com-munities deserve these resource allocations as much as any other areas of their community.” As part of this investment, NRCS is working with ABMA, East Arkansas Enterprise Community, conservation districts, and others on these projects.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Terry Cosby made the announcement concerning the Arkansas projects at the Forrest City Civic Center in April 2022 before visiting one of the project sites in Marianna. These projects include rehabilitating dams, flood prevention, and watershed restoration projects, and they are part of the Biden administration’s implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), building on a $166 million nationwide investment announced earlier this year.

“These investments will help protect communities and their residents here in Arkansas that are impacted by floods, natural disasters, and other watershed-scale resource concerns,” Cosby said. “For example, our project here will benefit three communities with residents who not only faced socioeconomic challenges but those from flooding and the other impacts of severe weather. This project and others across Arkansas will create a more climate-resilient future and will help these communities thrive in the years to come.

As part of this project, NRCS is also working with communities of the Helena-West Helena, Lake View, Marvell, Forrest City, Haynes, Marianna, Hughes, Jennette, Pine Bluff, and Camden for potential PL-566 projects, where flooding has caused significant problems for these historically underserved communities, including deteriorating highways, streets, and bridges. These projects aim to alleviate flooding of suburban and rural homes, cropland, and grazing lands as well as improve wild-life habitat and water quality.

“These projects create good-paying jobs and improve economies in rural America. USDA offers several watershed programs that help com-munities rebuild after natural disasters and build resilience,” said Mike Sulivan, Arkansas state conservationist. “We encourage communities to connect with their local NRCS office to learn more about Watershed Program assistance.”

As noted, NRCS received $918 million of BIL funding to allocate through its watershed programs.

In addition, NRCS is also using the Watershed Rehabilitation Program (REHAB) to upgrade existing NRCS dams and the Emergency Watershed Program (EWP) to help communities recover from natural disasters.

NRCS officials said the USDA will continue assisting communities as they receive disaster requests. The federal agency is currently reviewing additional requests and compiling a third round of BIL watershed funding as funds are available. ABMA is working closely with each member community to provide proper assistance, including Camden, Dumas, El Dorado, Eudora, Altheimer, Blytheville, Cotton Plant, Forest City, Haynes, Marianna, Fountain Hill, Fulton, Hughes, Jennette, Madison, Menifee, Pine Bluff, Stamps, Lewisville, Turrell, and Wilmot.

“If we are blessed to receive full funding for construction, we have

a number of areas that will benefit greatly,” commented Lincoln Barnett, mayor of Hughes, a small community of little more than 1,000 residents about 30 miles from Memphis. “Two areas of high priority are the Kinney and Ridgecrest subdivisions in Hughes. Both areas are known to flood heavily during heavy rains. These improvements would relieve those residents from having flooded yards and standing water near their home during those heavy rains.”

In September, ABMA celebrated its 50th Anniversary gala where it honored current and former Black mayors for their servant leadership in communities throughout Arkansas. A year ago, AMBA member and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., was sworn in as the ongoing president of the African American Mayors Association (AAMA). Today, the Washington, D.C.-based organization exclusively represents over 500 African American mayors across the U.S.

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