Dayton proposes $220M for water infrastructure, quality

Saying the state can no longer take clean drinking water “for granted,” Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday unveiled a $220 million proposal to patch up the state’s aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure and protect water quality.
The plan includes $167 million in bonding money to help cities upgrade their water infrastructure, part of a larger 2016 bonding recommendation he’s expected to release Friday morning.
In addition, it offers $52.7 million for various “water quality protection initiatives.”
Dayton said the money is necessary to “replace aging wastewater and drinking water systems” and “upgrade treatment facilities to meet higher standards, and expand systems to accommodate growth.”
But it’s just a down payment on long-term fixes that aren’t cheap, and it remains to be seen whether there will be bipartisan support for the plan.
State Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said in an interview that he believes there will be “a lot of support for infrastructure funding” among Republicans, and that the GOP will give “serious consideration” to those kinds of investments.
“Our caucus is very supportive of those issues,” Davids said.
Citing information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Dayton said the state faces $11 billion worth of needs in this area over the next 20 years, which is “obviously a huge price tag.”
Still, “as we learned with our transportation infrastructure, if we don’t keep up with the needs … we get farther behind the eight ball,” Dayton said in a conference call with reporters.
After the initial $220 million, an additional $100 million a year in state bonding would be needed for the next 20 years to address Minnesota’s water infrastructure needs.
If approved by the Minnesota Legislature, the water infrastructure plan would allow the state to fund up to 80 projects a year compared with fewer than 50 projects now, and it would boost average state assistance to municipalities to $300 million a year, up from $160 million, the governor’s office said.
A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers said Minnesota’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has a combined $11.5 billion worth of needs over the next 20 years. That breaks down to $7.4 billion for drinking water and $4.1 billion for wastewater.
Stephanie Menning, executive director of the Minnesota Utility Contractors Association, said she’s encouraged by Dayton’s proposal, as well as recently approved federal funding.
In December, Congress approved legislation that provides $1.394 billion for the U.S. EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund program, and $863 million for the Safe Drinking Water program.
“It’s almost like, both federally and statewide, folks are starting to wake up to the fact that clean drinking water is a necessity. It’s needed for everyday life,” she said.
Minnesota cities lean heavily on federally funded loan programs, known as “state revolving loan funds,” for projects ranging from water mains to water treatment plants. The Minnesota Public Facilities Authority administers those funds.
Jeff Freeman, director of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, said funding decisions are based on a priority list, but he hastened to add that the state always has more funding requests than available money.
Thus, cities are often faced with “difficult choices” of putting off projects or borrowing more money than they can afford to carry out these “important and critical projects,” he said.
Ed Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, said people often take clean drinking water for granted until a crisis arises. He referred to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the National Guard has had to pass out bottled water because the city’s tap water supply has been polluted with lead.
In Minnesota, about 60 percent of the needed improvements are in Greater Minnesota. Without state help, more Minnesotans “will face steep increases in their local water utility bills to pay for clean, safe drinking water,” Dayton said.
John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said he has heard from local communities about their needs to improve deteriorating pipes, including some that are more than 100 years old.
Infrastructure of that vintage is not unusual, Menning said. A couple of years ago in St. Paul, she noted, crews updated brick sewer lines under Marshall Avenue that were installed by Italian immigrants at the turn of the previous century.
“No one thinks about it until it’s broken,” she said.
The $220 million in requests would include these projects:

$62 million for the Point Source Implementation Grant Program, which helps communities pay for treatment plant upgrades to address water quality restoration and protection goals.
$80 million for the Water Infrastructure Funding Program to increase aid to communities rehabilitating aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure systems.
$25 million for Clean Water & Drinking Water Revolving Funds, which help local governments update clean water and drinking water projects.
$30 million for the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve program, which works with farmers and private landowners to restore and protect water quality in the implementation of the new buffer law passed last session.
$5 million for a Metropolitan Council initiative that provides matching grants to local governments to keep clear water from entering the municipal wastewater system.
$5 million to replace an estimated 300 acres of wetlands that are lost due to road construction.
$12.7 million to clean up contaminated sediment and industrial waste at 10 locations at the St. Louis River Estuary and the Duluth harbor and bay.

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