A fiscal nightmare is forming below the feet of most Minnesotans. The state's wastewater systems are aging and need to be modernized, with costs in the billions. The necessary statewide upgrades will require significant investment, which for some communities will be too steep in a time of state budget cuts and slow economic growth.

Across Minnesota, sewer and sanitation infrastructure systems are often entering their fourth, fifth and even sixth decades of service, stretching their lifespans to the breaking point, Minnesota 2020's latest report finds. Most systems last between 30 and 50 years, depending on their construction, before needing major maintenance or replacement.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, 70 percent of wastewater collection systems are older than 50, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In Duluth, some wastewater lines are as old as 120. More than 30 percent of greater Minnesota's underground sewage infrastructure is older than 50.

The MPCA's Project Priority List ranks about 350 wastewater infrastructure projects throughout the state, with the most deserving and dire at the top. While projects on this list are considered by state and federal funding agencies for grants and low-interest loans, statewide needs are too great to fund most jobs. There are many more projects that never get on the list.

This leaves Minnesota communities, especially rural areas, left to balance raising user rates and property taxes with necessary clean-water maintenance and improvements. This comes after a decade that produced property tax increases and rainy day fund raids to cope with state budget cuts. It all culminates to put needed upgrades further out of reach.

In the face of conservative opposition designed to choke off any new funding to government projects, municipalities and the state are increasingly relying on a system of quick-fix solutions that merely prolong the life of existing infrastructure, trying to squeeze out every last year of service from an aged system. A policy that emphasizes bandages over real care is unsustainable and unsound.

At its core, the state's deteriorating wastewater infrastructure is a matter of public health. Left to current trends, it threatens communities with a health disaster that promises to be far more costly in cleanup than it would be with preventative upgrades. Without proper upkeep, a sewer system can fail at any point, dumping untreated sewage into bodies of water or peoples' homes.

Infrastructure projects, especially those underground, rarely attract public interest the way more-visible bridge and road projects would. People rarely think about a well-functioning system until there's a threat of imminent danger.

Minnesota is faced with a choice: Pay now. Or face a fiscal and public health crisis in the near future.

The state's lakes, streams and other natural resources connect all Minnesotans, making this an issue that should be addressed on a statewide level. Budget cuts to local communities have taken their toll; it's time to replace this funding to adequate levels so towns can build back capital accounts.

While we won't know what the state's bonding capacity is for sure until the November economic forecast, Minnesota should have excess bonding capacity, which policymakers must use to supplement funding for the most critical projects.

Low interest rates, a competitive bidding environment, and high unemployment in the construction sector also make it an opportune time to tackle some of these projects. Why wait for these systems to fail? Let's act now.


Jeremy Dennison is a policy fellow for Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank focusing on education, health care, transportation and economic development.