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UT professor receives community achievement award for program that helps communities with water needs

Assistant professor Sreedhar Upendram receives award for data model that helps assess and identify disadvantaged communities.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Assistant professor Sreedhar Upendram has received the 2021 Bonnie Theater Community Development Early Career Achievement Award from the Southern Rural Development Center.

Upendram's work in developing an ability-to-pay index is recognized in how it has enabled unprecedented sharing of data and resources across federal and state agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized the index as a novel model of identifying and assessing disadvantaged communities.

Dr. Upendram joined UT's Institute of Agriculture in 2017. Upendram's community development program gained traction as it used applied research and UT Extension outreach to identify and strategically assist Tennessee's most distressed rural communities. His program was able to focus on rural water infrastructure, broadband access and digital literacy.

Upendram's efforts attracted over 20 grants that totaled $8.6 million. Upendram's ability-to-pay index covers all 95 counties and 347 cities, towns and municipalities in Tennessee. This index is currently used by TDEC to prioritize $115 million in clean water and $94 million in drinking water funding and by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) to allocate $24 million in Community Development Block Grants.

Since the implementation of Upendram's program, the TDEC State Revolving Fund program reports a 60% increase in small disadvantaged communities applying for loans. The increased demand has helped lead to the creation of new grants and new pilot project opportunities to help water infrastructure needs across TDEC, ECD and USDA-Rural Development.

"Dr. Upendram’s dedication and selfless service to this project has fundamentally changed the way that the State of Tennessee identifies and addresses small and disadvantage communities who need critical help with water infrastructure," said former TDEC State Revolving Fund director  Leslie Gillespie-Marthalerr. 

"These programs have incorporated the ability-to-pay index into their formal processes, and the tool is now driving allocation of resources to these communities in an unprecedented way. His contributions initiated a new way of doing business with the communities in Tennessee that need help the most."