Southwestern Minnesota is thirsty for water pipeline completion

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2014 - 6:11 PM

Builders of a water pipeline are frustrated by a trickle of federal funding.

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The region has been in dire need of water for at least a decade.

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For more than a year, a pipeline designed to bring fresh, potable water from a Missouri River aquifer in South Dakota to communities in southwestern Minnesota has sat abruptly ended at the edge of a farm field 425 feet into the state, awaiting more promised federal funding.

The cities of Luverne and Worthington and points in between have been in dire need of water from that pipe for at least a decade. They’ve restricted lawn watering, car washing and, in some cases, even turned away industry expansion because there isn’t enough water to support it.

Now officials in those areas are taking their frustration to state leaders, asking for unsecured, interest-free loans to get more line built instead of waiting for money from Washington.

Gov. Dayton has included $20.2 million for the project in his bonding bill, and pipeline officials said they have secured support for it from Republican state legislators in the area.

Pipeline officials are approaching state leaders in Iowa and South Dakota — also beneficiaries of the project — for the same favor.

“Because the federal government is leaving us high and dry, we have had no choice but to turn to the three states, to see if they would be willing to provide an advance on our federal funding,” said Troy Larson, executive director of the pipeline project known as the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System. “We’re basically stalled in terms of making any meaningful construction.”

The project, incorporated in 1990 and authorized by Congress in 2000, is designed to bring treated water to an estimated 300,000 people in the three states. In 2012, it began delivering water to 11 of its 20 community members, none of which are in Minnesota.

It got that far, Larson said, partly because the state and local members committed to the project completely and decided to pay all of their shares early to avoid inflation. The total project cost has continued to rise, now at $573 million, with the remaining federal share at $203 million.

Early this month, project leaders learned that they will get $8.4 million in federal funding this year. That will allow for building a meter house in Iowa and about five additional miles of pipe construction into Minnesota, still far short of the 57 miles needed to reach Worthington. The president’s budget proposal for next year gives the project just $2.4 million, Larson said.

At that rate, pipeline leaders say, the funding won’t cover the inflated costs.

“When we hear the president talk about the importance of investing in critical infrastructure but then he only proposes $2.4 million for Lewis & Clark, his words ring hypocritical,” Larson said.

The corner of the state has been struggling with water issues for decades. Many of the wells are shallow and drying up after a few years of drought.

“Obviously in a land of 10,000 lakes, water is often taken for granted,” Larson said. “In southwest Minnesota, they just don’t have nearly the water resources.”

State officials tested for other aquifers throughout the area before agreeing to be part of the three-state project, but found nothing adequate.

Worthington is now buying about 20 percent of its water from another well source nearby, but officials worry that could get cut off, too.

“What we have is what we have,” said Scott Hain, general manager of the city’s public utilities. “Certainly the lack of water has stifled growth over the years. I have no doubt in my mind that we would have a larger and certainly more vibrant community had we not faced the water issues.”

 

pam.louwagie@startribune.com 612-673-7102

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