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Lewis & Clark gets $5 million

WORTHINGTON — The glass can either be half full or half empty, according to Troy Larson.

But for the executive director of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, being allocated an additional $5.2 million is both.

“In our case, it’s the classic good news, bad news,” Larson said. “The silver lining is we had not planned to do any pipeline construction if we only got the $3.2 million proposed in the president’s budget. With this additional $5.2 million for a total of $8.4 million, we will be able to build at least five miles of pipe as well as construct a meter house and cover other expenses.”

An additional $27 million was allocated to share between six rural water systems. However, of that pot of money, Lewis & Clark got the third most out of the projects.

“All indications were, from the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, was that we were going to get the most out of any of the six rural water projects,” Larson said. “That’s what the head of the Bureau of Reclamation told Sen. (Tim) Johnson. Sen. Johnson shared that with a group of us that flew in a few weeks ago for a rural water rally. Somewhere along the line, we dropped from getting the most to getting the third most out of six projects. In that regard, we were definitely disappointed.”

Larson acknowledged the efforts of the tri-state delegation of senators and congressmen in Washington.

“We could not be more pleased with the effort put forth by our tri-state delegation, including those in Minnesota,” Larson said. “They went to bat for us. They did everything they could. But because of the earmark ban, the decision on how much of that $27 million we got laid in the hands of the Bureau of Reclamation.”

Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain said the other projects should be thankful.

“The other five authorized water projects ought to be sending thank you cards and flowers and boxes of candy to our tri-state delegation for getting that money restored,” Hain said. “Maybe their delegations worked some on it, too. We essentially got them more money than they would have had otherwise.”

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who had recently met with local officials about the water issues in Worthington, expressed his commitment to continue to fight for funding.

“Since coming to the Senate, I have made the Lewis and Clark Water Project a top priority because I’ve seen how important it is to the job-creation efforts in Worthington and other communities in southwest Minnesota that need water so that businesses can locate or expand there,” Franken said. “When I was in Worthington in late January, I met with local leaders and project officials to discuss how important it is to secure additional funding for the project. So, while this added funding is helpful, I am going to keep fighting for scarce funding until this project is finished.”

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tim Walz also pledged support to the project.

“Ensuring southwest Minnesota has access to a safe, abundant water supply will help rural communities grow and small businesses prosper,” Walz said, The additional funding today is welcome news, but more must be done to ensure this project is finished. Local communities have upheld their end of the bargain, and we must make sure the federal government upholds theirs. I will continue working with the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa to hold the Bureau of Reclamation accountable and complete this project.”

The total cost for the entire project is still $203 million.

“Three years ago, that was $194 million,” Larson said. “The inflation on the remaining federal cost share of $203 million increases each year by roughly $8 million. To put it in context, the $8 million basically pulls us even for the year. It would be like taking out a loan at a bank and all you did was pay interest on the loan and paid no principle.”

Hain said he wondered what it would take to secure more funding.

“While it’s nice the project is getting a little more money, I would have to say it’s disappointing Lewis & Clark only got $5 million out of the extra $27 million,” Hain said. “I’m really beginning to wonder what it’s going to take to break the cycle.”

Larson said he is continuing to work with the Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota governments to see if there is a possibility for more funding.

“We have three hats, one for each state,” Larson said. “We’re shaking the hats, seeing if any money is going to fall in.”

And while the work was done for the fiscal year 2014 budget, Larson heard later Tuesday afternoon about the proposed 2015 budget.

“We received terrible news that it’s only $2.4 million that the president is proposing, which is down from a minuscule $3.2 million last year,” Larson said. “ If that’s all we get, there will be no construction in 2015. That is terrible news and a real kick in the gut. Our delegation worked exceptionally hard to try to convince the administration to increase funding. Instead, we continue to go backward.”

Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.