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Project running dry?

WORTHINGTON -- In 1990, 20 communities in the tri-state area began conversation for the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System.

Ground was broken in 2003 after Congress authorization. Today, the project will be about five to six years behind schedule if federal funding begins streaming in at an expected rate of $35 million, said Lewis & Clark board member, Scott Hain.

While 11 members of the project in South Dakota and Iowa are scheduled to receive water Aug. 1, nine partners, Worthington included, will receive their fair share of water sometime in the near future depending on the funding available.

"I have to remain optimistic," Hain said, adding it is a fully authorized project signed into law.

The agreement between Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa with the federal government outlined that each state and local government would contribute up to 10 percent respectively toward the project cost, leaving the federal government to be responsible for the remaining costs.

Apart from the federal government, all entities prepaid for the project at $120 million.

"The real issue is because all the local and state money has been spent, future construction is completely dependent on federal funding," Hain said. "It (federal funding) is coming in at an anemic rate."

He continued to explain while the anticipated annual federal funding is $35 million, the project has yet to receive that amount. The highest amount distributed was $22 million.

Worthington, the city located the farthest east from the other partners, was scheduled to receive its splash of water in 2015. In a best case scenario, Worthington should receive water in 2021 if the $35 million annual funding rate begins

"It really is a disservice to federal taxpayers because the longer the feds drag this on, the more expensive the project becomes," Hain said. "The federal government has an obligation to finish this project."

A further issue arose after Congress passed the ban on earmarks in 2012. Fund allocations for water projects were passed on to the Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation. The department has its own criteria to prioritize projects.

"In the broad definition of earmarks, Lewis & Clark was included because it is congressionally directed," Hain said, adding the ban was not an initial concern because it was not considered an earmark.

The Bureau allocated $493,000 for fiscal year 2012 but the amount was increased to $5.5 million.

The federal budget for Lewis & Clark is $4.5 million for 2013.

With this year's inflation estimated to be $8.5 million, the project is going "backward," Hain said. If $4.5 million federal funding is expected annually, Worthington will hook up to the water system in 2049.

All 20 members of Lewis & Clark are facing the effects of the budget woes.

For the nine communities that have yet to be linked to the system, the local economy cannot attract new or expanding industries without a reliable water system in place.

"JBS has continued to grow and would like to expand, but they're a high-volume water user," Hain said. "They're acutely aware of the water situation, so it's a limiting factor."

Luverne resorted to drilling two new wells and has incurred additional costs due to the delay in the project.

Worthington is not as fortunate as Luverne in terms of additional water sources. Hain said although the city has water wells, the problem lies in the amount of water remaining in the wells to be pumped out.

"Prior to Lewis and Clark, we've spent hundreds and thousands of dollars for local exploration for additional water sources, and they aren't just any around," he said.

For now, the city still has a decent water source, but it could be affected by drought. The city is in the process of developing an agreement for an emergency interconnection with Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System.

In event of an emergency, the agreement will allow either community to provide water source to the other.

The 11 communities that will see their water this summer will have to bear higher water rates until the remaining nine members are connected to the system.

Daily Globe Reporter Ana Anthony may be reached at 376-7321.