WaterNow Alliance hosted a Water Wednesday Webinar, “Unlocking WaterSMART Funding: Insights and Success Stories from Colorado Communities”, on May 29, 2024 focused on sharing feedback from Colorado communities who have successfully received funding from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) WaterSMART program. Panelists from three western slope communities/organizations shared about their projects, experiences applying for the grant, and lessons learned when implementing their projects.

  • Rob Gregor, Utilities Management Analyst for the City of Aspen, received a FY 2021 Small-Scale Water Efficiency Projects (SWEP) grant for $75,000 for a project titled Irrigation Efficiency Assessment and Outdoor Rebate Program.
    • This project built upon the outdoor water efficiency goals outlined in Aspen’s Water Efficiency Plan.
  • Cassandra McCuen, Program Manager with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, received a FY 2023 Environmental Water Resources Projects (EWRP) grant for $1,274,625 for a project titled Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project.
    • Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project had participated in several previous studies which identified priorities projects in the basin. The selected project aligns with the goal of implementing multi-benefit projects that support aquatic health, recreation, and agriculture.
  • Andy Rice, Director of Parks, Recreation, and Library from Alamosa received a FY 2023 Water and Energy Efficiency Grant (WEEG) for $500,000 for a project titled City of Alamosa Cattails Golf Course Irrigation Replacement Project.
    • This project built upon the outdoor water efficiency goals outlined in Alamosa’s Water Efficiency Plan.

Panelists shared the greatest challenges were that they faced while applying to their respective WaterSMART grants and how they overcame them.

  • With multiple programs offered by USBR, it can be challenging to know which grant is the best fit for your project. Getting in touch with USBR very early in the application process to confirm project eligibility and receive guidance on the best path forward is strongly recommended.
  • WaterSMART grant applications can be very involved and require data collection and coordination with various departments and partners. Engaging with stakeholders early in the process will help ensure your grant application is robust, competitive, and finished in time.
  • The Notice of Funding Opportunities are lengthy and it can be easy to miss some of the application requirements. The panelists shared that using WaterNow’s fillable grant application templates and having their draft applications reviewed by WaterNow was helpful to avoid missing any critical information.
  • Having small staff and limited capacity, in addition to no prior experience applying for WaterSMART grants, was a challenge for the panelists. The panelists overcame this challenge in a few ways, including hiring consultants to write their application and working with WaterNow for application support and review.

Panelists also shared the key elements of a successful WaterSMART application.

  • Having a clear idea of the project objectives, goals, outputs, timeline, and budget are all critical elements to a strong WaterSMART grant application.
  • Keeping the scope broad when possible so that funding can be used in a range of ways to meet the outlined objectives in your application (this can help when administering the project after awarded).
  • Answering the evaluation criteria sections to the fullest extent will make your application stronger and more competitive.
  • Showing tangible, quantifiable water and energy savings is a key component of a successful WEEG application, accounting for nearly half of the possible awarded points in the scoring criteria.
  • Support from major decision makers and stakeholders in the community and incorporating their input throughout the planning and construction phases of the project is an important element of a WaterSMART application.
  • Tying your proposed project to prior or ongoing planning efforts can be highly beneficial.
  • Striking a balance between providing as many details as possible and staying within the page limitations, is key.

Collaboration is often crucial in applying for and implementing grants. Panelists shared what the internal collaboration and community engagement processes looked like while they drafted their WaterSMART grant applications.

  • Requesting and obtaining letters of support from other departments and/or external partners is a powerful and relatively straightforward way to collaborate during the grant application phase. It's wise to initiate this process early, as securing these letters can be time-consuming.
  • Additionally, providing a letter of support template to your partners can help expedite the process.

While applying for grants is a large under-taking, administering, and implementing the award includes additional considerations. Panelists shared what their experience with receiving, administering, and implementing their WaterSMART funding has been like.

  • WaterSMART grants are administered as a reimbursement, meaning the receiving community/organization needs to provide the funds up-front. Budgeting for this component is important.
  • The panelists have had positive experiences working with USBR program coordinators and the reporting process is very approachable. For example, the City of Aspen did not fully spend down their grant by their project end date, and USBR extended their grant to allow them to continue to administer the program to spend down the funds.
  • Alamosa’s project, which replaced a golf course’s irrigation system, is a specialized task with only a handful of firms who can do the irrigation retrofit work. Finding the right consulting firm through a bidding process was time consuming and is something to keep in mind for other projects that have a construction element.
  • It’s important to schedule a meeting with your USBR grant manager to understand any limitations of the funding. For example, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project learned that they would receive half of their funding in 2024, and the second half in 2025, which is critical information needed for successful budgeting during the implementation phase.

The panelists shared their insights and final thoughts on their experiences with WaterSMART grants:

  • High Value Projects: WaterSMART grants provide substantial funding opportunities for large-scale projects. With ample funds available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, now is an excellent time to apply.
  • Encouragement to Apply: If you have a project that seems like a good fit, pursue it. Schedule a call with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to verify applicant and project eligibility.
  • Worthwhile Effort: While the application process for WaterSMART grants can be demanding at the outset, the rewards are worthwhile.
  • Ease of Collaboration: The USBR has been consistently easy to work with throughout the process.
  • Support from WaterNow: Don’t hesitate to seek free assistance from WaterNow to bolster your application.

Interested in learning more about what our panelists shared? View a recording of the webinar.  Have questions or wondering how WaterNow Alliance can support your WaterSMART grant application process? Visit our website and fill out this Google Form and we’ll be in touch.

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