Thirty years after it was first envisioned, and 15 years after the first shovel kicked into the ground, Worthington is about to get its water pipe.
The last piece of pipeline needed to connect the city to the $585 million Lewis and Clark Regional Water System was put into the ground last week, and Worthington Public Utilities manager Scott Hain said he expects to turn on the tap by the end of the month.
Up to 1.9 million gallons of water a day will flow into Worthington through 135 miles of pipeline from its source near Vermillion, S.D., easing the burden on an aging well field south of town.
“Almost 30 years, we’ve been chugging along on this thing,” said Hain.
The southwest corner of the state wasn’t blessed when the glaciers receded, as Hain puts it, and doesn’t have the groundwater and lakes that supply much of the rest of Minnesota.
Longtime homeowners have learned to conserve what they can. Rain barrels were popular here long before they began popping up in other communities. Some homeowners even use the water from their dehumidifiers to water their plants, Hain said.
Decades of water exploration found little for the city to tap into.
“We spent millions of dollars punching holes in the ground, and there just isn’t a whole lot else around here,” said Hain.
A well field developed in the 1960s about 7 miles south of the town supplies most of the city’s water today, but it’s vulnerable to drought.
That last happened a few years ago, when water shortages grew so severe that even the usual restrictions on water usage had to be tightened. Steady rains in the past two to three years have replenished groundwater supplies, pushing local water reserves to levels not seen in decades. Hain said it’s only a matter of time before those sources fall short, however.
The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was incorporated in 1990, a dream of communities in southwestern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota and northwestern Iowa, all of them struggling with water supplies.
It took another decade before the federal government agreed to a plan that had it covering 80 percent of the pipeline’s cost, with state governments covering 10 percent, and the final 10 percent covered by 20 local communities served by the network. Federal funds have been slow in coming, and Worthington, like many other communities served by the water network, has used zero interest, unsecured state loans to keep the project moving ahead. The expectation is that federal funds will eventually arrive and Worthington will use them to repay the state’s so-far $44.5 million loan for the project.
Groundbreaking was in 2003, and the first members were connected in 2012. Fourteen communities have been connected thus far; Worthington will be the 15th to go online.
The water system uses wells to tap into a reservoir by the Missouri River near Vermillion. All told, it will use 337 miles of pipeline to send up to 45 million gallons of water a day to 300,000 people in communities across three states. That’s an amount equal to less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the river’s daily flow, according to Troy Larson, executive director of Lewis & Clark.
The water network is 75 percent complete. Funds already have been committed to push that to 80 percent. About $188 million is needed to finish the project, Larson said.
Worthington will draw 1.5 million gallons a day from the pipeline, matching its existing well field usage, Hain said.
“Boy it feels great to get this done,” he added.
An official ribbon cutting has been tentatively planned for Dec. 12.