Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled a plan Thursday to spend $220 million to modernize the state’s aging water system, the most ambitious effort in recent history to begin fixing pipes and plants that process the state’s sewage and drinking water.
The plan includes $167 million to help cities — many of them small, outstate communities — that can’t afford to upgrade water systems needed to clean farm and other pollutants from their water without doubling residents’ water bills.
“Minnesota has long been known for the abundance and quality of its water,” Dayton said at a news conference. “It’s no longer something we can take for granted.”
The money would only begin to address the estimated $4.2 billion needed in the near future to update the state’s water systems, with still more required in coming years — 83 percent of the sewers in the Twin Cities were built more than 50 years ago, for instance.
Dayton’s water plan is part of a broader two-year borrowing package he will present Friday, expected to top $1 billion. His plan will need approval from a divided Legislature, with members who will have their own local bonding priorities in a year in which all 201 legislative seats are up for election.
State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, vice chairman of the Capital Investment Committee in the Republican-controlled House, released a statement noting the importance and expense of building, operating, maintaining and upgrading water systems.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who chairs the Senate’s Capitol Investment Committee, said he is encouraged by Dayton’s proposal. He said that when his committee toured the state last year, members heard repeatedly about water and especially aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.
Dayton, who will also host a water quality summit in February, has made clean water a defining issue since last year, when he won passage of a complex measure at the Legislature that mandated buffers around waterways to protect them from pollution, a law that continues to cause consternation among some farmers.
The proposed water system spending, some of which would help the state and cities leverage additional federal money, is three or four times the amount for water quality in any previous bonding bill, state officials said.
Still, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a report noting that local governments identified more than 1,350 wastewater infrastructure projects, costing $4.2 billion, more than half of that outstate. Over the longer term, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has estimated Minnesota will need to spend $11 billion to maintain and upgrade its water systems during the next 20 years.
A caution against delay
Dayton acknowledged that his plan is just a start, comparing the compounding problems of the state’s aging water infrastructure to its decrepit road system.
“The longer we delay, the more difficult and more expensive it is” to address the deteriorating situation, he said.
Detroit Lakes would be one of the cities receiving help under Dayton’s plan.
The city’s wastewater treatment plant dumps 198 pounds of phosphorus per year into Lake St. Clair, a pollutant that can cause excessive plant growth and toxic algae blooms. To meet water quality standards, the Becker County city needs a new plant that would cost $30 million. It would produce water as clean as tap water that could be reused, and would protect not only Lake St. Clair, but popular recreational lakes downstream, said Scott Gilbertson, director of Detroit Lakes’ wastewater facility.
But it is expensive.
A 30-year loan to finance most of the work would double residential sewer rates to $62 per month, he said.
“There is some poverty here,” Gilbertson said. “We have some people who are really struggling.”
Steve Woods, executive director of the Freshwater Society, an environmental group, applauded the Dayton plan for its nuts-and-bolts water quality measures. “He’s addressing essentials. Not luxuries.”
Fixing existing water systems is only part of the solution, Dayton acknowledged. He said that without renewed efforts to prevent pollutants from entering surface and groundwater, money for water pipes and plants will be insufficient. Half the lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are too polluted much of the time for safe swimming and fishing, according to a state survey released last year.
Dayton’s proposal to invest $30 million in agricultural conservation could leverage another $634 million from the federal government during the next five years, removing 100,000 acres of cropland in sensitive areas, reducing water pollution throughout the southern two-thirds of the state. It would include buffer strips, wetland restoration and drinking water protection.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources estimates that if all 100,000 acres were converted to natural landscapes, it would significantly reduce pollutants in the state’s agricultural region. For example, sediment loads would drop by 205,000 tons per year. That’s equal to one-fourth of the dirt that each year flows down the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers before ending up in Lake Pepin.
Although Dayton said he had no specific ideas on stricter regulations to prevent more water pollution, he used the news conference to raise the stakes of his proposal, calling it an ethical imperative to recognize that each water user affects all other Minnesota water users now and in the future.
“We all are responsible to do what we can and what we must to make our water cleaner and safer,” Dayton said.