Massive water project in SW Minnesota wants Trump to open the money tap

By John Reinan
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Residents of southwestern Minnesota have been waiting nearly 30 years for the completion of a massive pipeline that will carry water from the Missouri River to Worthington and the surrounding area.

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is more than two-thirds complete, but pipeline officials hope the new administration in Washington, D.C., will step up spending to bring the project to a faster finish.

“The previous two administrations, Obama and George W. [Bush], really let us down in terms of funding,” said Troy Larson, the system’s executive director. “The funding fell far short of what we needed to make meaningful progress. But we are incredibly encouraged by President Trump’s focus on infrastructure right out of the gate.”

Advocates for the pipeline project, incorporated in 1990, fought for a decade to win approval from Congress. In 2000, Congress authorized the work, which calls for delivering water to more than 300,000 residents in seven counties in South Dakota, six counties in Iowa, and two in Minnesota — Rock and Nobles. More than one-third of the water will go to the city of Sioux Falls, S.D.

The nearly $600 million cost will be shared by the federal government, the states and the 20-member water districts that own the pipeline system. The problem in finishing the work, Larson said, is slow payment by the federal government.

Though federal officials have committed about $432 million to the project, only $239 million has been paid to date. The spending slowdown was a result of the outcome of the 2010 elections, which put Republicans in control of the U.S. House, Larson said.

When the GOP took control, House leaders enacted a ban on “earmarks,” a long-standing practice that allowed representatives the discretion to steer money toward favored projects. Now, even though the federal government has committed to building the pipeline, it must secure funding each year. Since 2010, annual appropriations have been cut from around $20 million a year to about $10 million.

To keep the project on track, its leaders have borrowed money from the states, with the promise that it will be paid back through federal funding. Minnesota has made interest-free loans of about $41 million to the project so far. Larson said he’s confident the money will be repaid — eventually.

“The feds have never defaulted on a rural water project,” he said. “How quickly they come through [with payment] is another matter.”

The pipeline reached Luverne last year and is expected to reach Worthington in late 2018. It is seen as crucial to the future of southwestern Minnesota, which lacks deep water resources, said Lennis “Red” Arndt, the system’s board chairman and a Luverne resident.

Shallow rock formations in the region prevent the drilling of deep wells, Arndt said. Most of the wells are only 35 to 40 feet deep, compared with those in the Twin Cities area that often go down hundreds of feet to tap deep aquifers. Shallow wells are less productive and more susceptible to contamination from agriculture and other sources of pollution.

“If I wanted my grandchildren to grow up here, we needed water,” Arndt said.

The project has received strong bipartisan support from congressional delegations in all three states.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the Mankato Democrat who represents the area, called the pipeline long overdue.

“It’s long past time for the federal government to make good on its promise and pay back its partners for contributing above and beyond their original requirements,” he said.