St. Francis’ failing wastewater treatment plant may be on the northern edge of Anoka County, but it’s everyone’s problem, city leaders say.
That’s because the elevated nitrates, phosphorus, ammonia, organics and solids from the flagging 1970s-era facility are dumped into a drainage field and tributary of the Mississippi River, just upstream from the city of Minneapolis’ water intake.
Construction has already started on a new wastewater plant that was launched after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) found repeated violations. But city officials say the plant’s $24 million cost could sink the 2,000 mostly working-class households expected to pay for it.
As Gov. Mark Dayton vows to tackle Minnesota’s mounting water crisis, St. Francis leaders are asking state legislators for help.
Monthly water and sewer bills are expected to climb from $73 to $123 a month, according to the city. That’s a substantial hike for an exurban community with a median household income of $45,000.
“We really don’t have a choice. We have to have clean water,” said Mayor Steve Kane. “We don’t have a wealthy community. The income level is low out there. A lot of people are struggling.”
The cost of the new facility has roiled the community, with overflow crowds at meetings attesting to the concern.
St. Francis is eligible for a $3 million state grant for the plant, and the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority has agreed to loan the city the remaining $21 million with interest between 1 and 2 percent, depending on other financing factors.
Still, state officials who work with cities across Minnesota on these projects acknowledge that little St. Francis is in a tough spot. They’ve agreed to hold off finalizing the loan to see if the city can secure as much as $4 million in additional state funding this year through the Wastewater Infrastructure Fund.
Given the size of the community, said Becky Sabie, program coordinator with the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, “this one project is particularly expensive. … We are trying to work with them to find different ways to find grants.”
St. Francis leaders are hopeful that legislators, who have said they want to improve Minnesota’s waters, will make sure the city gets the additional $4 million in grant dollars and possibly more.
“It’s a regional issue for sure,” said City Administrator Joe Kohlmann. “A million dollars in a community our size is extremely substantial.”
Funding doesn’t meet need
In January, Dayton announced a mix of $167 million in loans and grants to modernize Minnesota’s aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.
“The governor’s program would give St. Francis significantly more grant money than the $3 million,” said Jeff Freeman, executive director of the Public Facilities Authority.
Last year, state grant and loan programs poured $119 million into waste and stormwater projects for nearly 30 outstate cities and the Metropolitan Council, Freeman said. But it’s just a drop in the bucket, given the demand.
“Right now, we’ve got 293 projects asking for $1.4 billion currently for wastewater and stormwater projects” over the next five years, said Bill Dunn, coordinator of the MPCA’s clean-water revolving fund. Projects are ranked by environmental and public-health criteria.
“There is a lot of need,” Dunn said. “Not everyone gets state funding.”
St. Francis operates one of about 1,000 wastewater treatment facilities in the state, according to the MPCA. The Met Council operates eight that handle wastewater for most of the Twin Cities area, but St. Francis is just outside its coverage area.
“There are a lot of exurban communities their size that own and operate treatment facilities on their own,” said Steve Weiss, a supervisor with MPCA. “They have tried to do their best with what they’ve got there.”
Weiss said that many smaller wastewater projects were built in the 1970s and ’80s and that they need to be upgraded or replaced to meet pollutant limits. The MPCA issues permits to those facilities and reviews them every five years.
Weiss said that some level of treatment is occurring at the St. Francis facility but that “some of the most basic limits, they are not able to meet.” Projects like this one simply can’t wait, he added.
“In many cases, it can be a human health problem if facilities are not fixed or maintained,” Weiss said.