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Franken talks Lewis & Clark in Worthington meeting

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken (center) listens to Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh as Lewis & Clark Regional Water System Chairman Red Arndt looks on Friday afternoon during a meeting at the Worthington Fire Hall. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON —Al Franken vowed to keep fighting.

Talking with local officials on the topic of Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, the Minnesota U.S. Senator said Friday afternoon he will continue to work to push the project forward.

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“I’m embarrassed that we don’t have the funding that we really need,” Franken said before a crowd of 30 assembled at the Worthington Fire Station. “All I can do is keep fighting every chance I get.”

The local communities have already paid their share of funding for Lewis & Clark. However, the federal government hasn’t picked up its share.

“As mayor, I testified at two U.S. Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., and I thought that battle was done,” said District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and a former mayor of that community. “But here we are.”

More than $60 million is needed for the project in Minnesota alone.

Recently, Gov. Mark Dayton put $20 million on his bonding bill to complete the first of three phases in Minnesota.

“I’m very happy that Gov. Dayton has asked for $20 million in the bonding bill,” Franken said. “And we got $27 million extra on top of the president’s request, which is something I fought for on the omnibus appropriations bill. I’m going to try to do everything I can to get as much of the extra $27 million to Lewis & Clark.”

Franken said now it’s time for the federal government to step up.

“Not only did the state and communities pay 100 percent of what they were supposed to, but now they are bonding for $20 million. That’s how important this is to us. You have to get this thing done,” Franken said. “The state is going above and beyond what it was called for, it’s time for the federal government to honor its side of this.”

The $27 million is to be split among six water projects throughout the country. The Bureau of Reclamation has 30 days — from Jan. 17 — to report back to congress how it is going to use the money. However, Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh said he wants assurance that the federal government will still support the project, despite the money from the state legislature in St. Paul.

“This gives me a leverage point to say ‘St. Paul isn’t going to do this’ if we’re simply going to say ‘If they do $20 million, we’re going to do $20 million less,”’ Franken said. “In the 30 days, make sure you’re telling our state legislature that we’re not being chumps.”

Added Franken: “This becomes an interesting, ‘Which comes first, St. Paul or Washington?’” 

Troy Larson, executive director of Lewis & Clark, said he appreciates the senator’s work.

“We don’t have to sell the senator,” Larson said. “When we meet with him in D.C., he knows the talking points. I think it’s important to reiterate to him why is it so important to receive water in a timely manner. How much is it costing you not to have water, but also what’s not happening right now because you don’t have the water?”

However, the total cost for the remaining project is rising consistently.

“We’re not even been funding enough to keep up,” Franken said. 

The amount to cover inflation is double what the government’s funding, said Red Arndt, chairman of the Lewis & Clark Board. 

“The project will never get done at that rate,” he said. “Everybody is looking for water.” 

This year, the federal budget has $3.2 million slated for the project.

“It’s like having a loan — you’ve paid on it for three years and find out you owe more than when you started,” Larson said.

Representatives from the city of Worthington, the city of Luverne, Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and Rock County Rural Water each told Franken the need is great. 

“Through our economic development association, we have actually had to turn away projects,” Oberloh said. “When DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development) comes along with projects, we don’t solicit anything that’s a water user.”

According to JBS General Manager Brad Hellinga, the company is doing the best it can to conserve water. 

“We are very concerned about our water,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things at our plant level to reduce our water usage.”

Any kind of expansion would be very difficult because of the water situation. Hellinga said that at times, the water level has been low enough where they are almost facing curtailment to the point of cutting hours.

“If we were to cut back, the area would have a huge economic loss,” Hellinga said, adding that there are 2,200 employees in the plant and thousands of other jobs affected. 

“One of the talking points that I’ve used about this is basically the economic development that isn’t being done,” Franken said. “What I understand is JBS wanted to expand and just hasn’t been able to. Right now you’re talking about potential cutbacks in hours and those types of things.”

Luverne Administrator John Call said the city has looked at other options outside of Lewis & Clark.

“We wish we could spend more money and go out and drill wells,” Call said. “It’s been well documented in studies that have been done 15, 20, 25 years ago — there are no more deep wells, there are no more sources of water. I think some people don’t really understand that.”

After his stop in Worthington, Franken was going to Luverne to discuss the renewable fuel standard.

“There is another frustration,” Franken said. “The administration and the EPA are lowering the levels for ethanol and biodiesel, which is crazy.”

Oberloh said farming is vital to the rural areas.

“Agriculture continues to be the lifeblood of our rural communities,” Oberloh said. “As they do more value-added things in agriculture, they all demand water.”

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