As Minnesotans, we take pride in our state’s bountiful rivers, lakes and streams. Our state flag prominently features the Mississippi River; our cars sport license plates touting our “10,000 lakes” (real Minnesotans know the actual number is closer to 12,000, but we don’t like to brag), and even the name “Minnesota” is derived from a Dakota word meaning “clear blue water.” Those of us lucky enough to live here recognize the valuable role Minnesota’s waters play in the state’s economy and quality of life.
However, as mayor of Albert Lea, I know that clean water doesn’t come cheap. As the state imposes new regulations aimed at improving water quality, cities across Minnesota will need to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities — costs that are then transferred to the businesses and homeowners in our communities.
Cities cannot shoulder this burden alone.
That is why I urge the Legislature to support Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan to include $167 million in the bonding bill for clean water infrastructure grant and loan programs for cities. Wastewater facilities are the kind of core infrastructure that government has the responsibility to provide, a necessity that should not be overlooked. Republicans and Democrats alike should have no qualms about supporting the governor’s proposal. They should seize this opportunity to use it as a solid foundation of a fair and balanced bonding bill that would benefit the entire state.
According to reports from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency, Minnesota is facing an estimated $11 billion in water infrastructure costs over the next 20 years. Dayton’s proposal is a signal that the state is willing to partner with local governments in the effort to achieve clean water for all Minnesotans. I encourage other lawmakers to follow his lead and support state funding for clean water infrastructure.
The need to update old wastewater systems and meet new water quality standards is particularly prevalent in Greater Minnesota. As I talk with fellow mayors across the state, this topic often comes up as one of the biggest concerns facing their cities. While metro-area communities are able to pool their resources into the Metropolitan Council for water services, most rural cities must maintain their own individual facilities. In Albert Lea, we have estimated that it will cost between $8 million and $30 million to do the renovations necessary to comply with new regulations. Water and sewer rates would have to double or even triple in order for our city to foot this bill.
In addition to affecting homeowners, many of whom are on fixed incomes, hefty rate increases will have a negative effect on the state’s economic growth. In Albert Lea, we have several food-based businesses that use large amounts of water and therefore pay a majority of the costs to run our wastewater facility. However, if rates continue to rise, it will be difficult to attract new or expanding businesses that could easily bring their operations — and jobs — to nearby Iowa, Wisconsin or North Dakota. I don’t want outrageously high utility costs to become a barrier to economic growth in my community or others in Greater Minnesota.
Minnesota’s waters are a benefit to our entire state, so everyone must work together to keep them clean. Cities like Albert Lea are more than willing to do our part in protecting the state’s lakes and rivers, but we will not be successful without the state as a strong partner.
Dayton should be commended for taking the lead on this issue and making clean water infrastructure one of his top bonding priorities. His proposal is a positive sign that the state and local governments can work together to improve water quality — without bankrupting the communities on the front lines of providing water services.
Vern Rasmussen Jr. is the mayor of Albert Lea and a member of the board of directors for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.