Dayton Aims Money At Small, Rural Communities With Water Woes

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton looks over a map showing communities that would get clean-water assistance under a proposal he announced Thursday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton looks over a map showing communities that would get clean-water assistance under a proposal he announced Thursday, Jan. 12, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota cities, especially small rural ones, ask the state for money almost every year to improve their sewage treatment systems.

Same for their water treatment plants.

With a new law requiring farmers to separate cropland from water with vegetation, they also seek financial help.

Those and other water-quality issues equal a big problem for Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday as he proposed that the state borrow nearly $220 million to improve the state’s water.

“Minnesotans are used to clean, safe affordable, high quality water for drinking, recreational purposes, businesses for their purposes,” Dayton said. “It is no longer something we can take for granted.”

While there are water quality issues all around the state, most of the southwest’s water has been declared unsuitable for swimming and fish caught in waters there may be unsafe to eat.

“We have a challenge to act so the situation does not get worse,” Dayton said.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency survey indicates communities statewide need to spend $11 billion in the next two decades to fix water quality problems.

Dayton released a list of 84 projects around the state that could benefit from his proposal, which will be part of a larger bonding bill expected to be too rich for Republican tastes.

However, a key Republican did not dismiss Dayton’s mostly rural water plan.

“I am appreciative that Gov. Dayton has given us some of his initial bonding priorities today and look forward to seeing the remainder of his proposal Friday,” Rep. Chris Swedzinski of Ghent, said Thursday. “Wastewater treatment plants and drinking water infrastructure are vital to cities throughout the state, and are expensive to build, upgrade and operate. The House Capital Investment Committee will take the necessary time to properly vet these projects during upcoming legislative session.”

Swedzinski is an assistant House majority leader and vice chairman of the investment committee, which will be the key stop for the bonding plan.

“I am setting the marker high,” Dayton said. “I don’t expect it will all get funded this session.”

No matter how much money legislators agree to spend, he said, funding will need to continue for a couple of decades.

Dayton plans to reveal the rest of his public works proposal, funded by the state selling bonds, on Friday.

The Democratic governor said that his water plan is one of his top four legislative priorities, along with education, targeted tax relief and transportation funding.

While the goal of the Dayton plan is to begin a process of cleaning the state’s water, it also will save taxpayers of small, rural communities, he said.

Dayton and commissioners who joined him Thursday said that without state money, residents’ water and sewer bills could double or triple in many small communities forced to improve water and sewage treatment facilities.

The Dayton plan would provide $167 million to improve aging water and sewer infrastructure, such as replacing Chisholm’s wooden pipes, and take other steps to improve water quality.

Another $53 million would be used to control water pollution, such as helping farmers and other landowners afford vegetative buffers that in the next few years they will be required to establish between cropland and water.

Executive Director Jeff Freeman of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority said that in some cases, federal money will be available to help stretch state funds.

“This funding is going to allow us to reach many more cities than we normally would,” Freeman said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said that rural Minnesotans are especially hurt by water issues.

“People are paying in rural communities a lot more for safe water than in the metro area,” he said.

Pollution Control Commissioner John Linc Stine said that while some water and sewer infrastructure is 100 or more years old, even some put in place 30 to 40 years ago has reached the end of its designed lifetime.

“These facilities are coming to the end of their lifecycle,” he said.

The Dayton plan includes funding to clean up the largest pollution site along the Great Lakes.

Cleaning up contaminated sediment and industrial waste along the St. Louis River estuary and in Duluth harbor would get $12.7 million in the Dayton plan.

“It will restore the St. Louis River estuary to a position of prominence,” Linc Stine said.

He predicted the area “will become of the destinations for Minnesota outdoor recreationalists.”

The state’s portion of the clean-up would be 35 percent of total cost, with the federal government picking up 65 percent.

Duluth City Council members discussed the issue at a recent meeting in which they set 2016 legislative priorities.

“I think this is a really critical time to be addressing this river, and with the nearly two-to-one match coming from the federal government, we can’t afford to miss this, especially as we are looking at the city investing our time and treasure into the renewal of the whole St. Louis River corridor,” council member Gary Anderson said.

A group supporting an estuary recovery project reports that nearly one-third of the St. Louis River Estuary has been filled or dredged since the mid-1850s.