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Lewis & Clark key part of bonding plan

WORTHINGTON -— When Gov. Mark Dayton released his $1.4 billion borrowing proposal Friday morning in advance of the 2016 Minnesota Legislative Session in eight weeks, he identified the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System as his top Main Street Minnesota project.

Dayton will ask legislators to fund the $16 million needed to expand the water pipeline to Worthington and complete southwest Minnesota’s portion of the multi-state project which, when completed, will bring water to more than 20,000 Minnesotans.

Scott Hain, Worthington Public Utilities Manager, has spent countless hours lobbying Minnesota legislators in the past for funds needed to bring Lewis & Clark water to Worthington. This year, with the smallest funding request he’s made in three years, Hain benefits by being a familiar face not only among local political leaders, but with Rep. Paul Torkelson, chairman of the House Capital Investment Committee and Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, who chairs the same committee in the Senate.

“I expect that Senator (Bill) Weber and Representative (Rod) Hamilton will introduce bills on our behalf at the beginning of the session — probably matching the governor’s $16 million recommendation,” Hain said Friday. “I’m really glad this is going to be our smallest ask in three years. I think we’ve impressed upon everyone up there the importance of this project.”

Hain commended Dayton’s efforts to see the Lewis & Clark expansion project through as governor, and extended deep appreciation for local legislators and those in St. Paul for their support of the project.

Moving numbers

When the state approved $19 million to advance Lewis & Clark in 2015, it funded expansion of the water pipeline to near Magnolia, but also designated funds for engineering and design to get the pipeline to Worthington.

At the time, Lewis & Clark estimated it would take $22 million to complete the project to Worthington. As engineers continue to tweak the final design, and land acquisition is in process, Hain said the estimate has dropped to $18.7 million.

The $2.7 million difference will be covered by an already approved designation from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Hain said the final amount needed from the state continues to be a moving target because Congress increased funding to the Bureau of Reclamation by $47 million. He anticipates Lewis & Clark will be awarded an extra share from the increased pot of money.

While the bureau has yet to announce just how much more Lewis & Clark will get, Hain is hopeful it will be announced before state legislators gather March 8. If not, he anticipates an announcement before the legislative session ends in May.

Last year, Lewis & Clark received an extra $9 million from the bureau. If awarded a proportionate amount this year, Hain said it could bring $12.5 million in federal dollars to the water project. That would leave the state with $6.2 million to fund.

“We’d love to have Reclamation fund the entirety of the project,” Hain said. “That might be a long shot.”

In the past two years, the state of Minnesota has advanced $41 million to Lewis & Clark — money that was part of the federal commitment to the project. The expectation is the bureau will repay the state.

Seeing the light

Hain said if funding for the final phase of the Lewis & Clark expansion falls into place, engineers are saying the project will be ready to go out for bids this fall. That means Worthington could be accessing Lewis & Clark water in late 2017 — a year ahead of previous predictions.

“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Hain said. “What we’re going to continue to do is press and press.”

Meanwhile, the city of Worthington continues to purchase water from Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water to meet its needs. When the hookup was first established in 2014, the city purchased one million gallons per day, and Hain anticipates it will return to that level in the near future.

In addition, the city’s wells in the Lake Bella wellhead have seen an unprecedented fall recharge after three years of drought. While it is exciting to see water levels come back up in the wells, Hain cautions that while well levels are above average, “we’re not significantly above average.”

“We joined the (Lewis & Clark) project back in 1990 because we face this same situation over and over and over again,” Hain said. “I’m absolutely thrilled that we’ve seen the recharge. If we saw another winter like we did last year, I hate to think of where we’d be in the spring.”

The fact is, droughts are cyclical in southwest Minnesota.

“We’re so susceptible to drought down here,” Hain said. “It’s happened before, it will happen again.”

Jobs making jobs

Overall, Dayton’s bonding proposal would invest $1.4 billion in infrastructure projects statewide, creating nearly 40,000 jobs.

“My proposals would put thousands of Minnesotans to work throughout our state,” said Dayton in a media release Friday morning. “This bill will help deliver clean, affordable water to Minnesota communities and prioritize projects that have been delayed for many years. These projects are essential to improving our state’s infrastructure. I ask the Legislature to join me in working to pass a capital investment bill this session that will support our local economies and create jobs.”

While in the case of the Lewis & Clark expansion project, those construction jobs will be temporary, Hain said having an additional water source will help drive economic development in Worthington.

“Our economic development managers and folks have essentially been trained over the years that if a business was interested in moving to Worthington, the first question is, ‘How much water do you use?’”

If their answer was more than the city could accommodate, the businesses were encouraged to look for another community to operate, he added.

“If water had never been an issue for Worthington, this community would be significantly larger than it is now,” Hain said.

Yet, even with Lewis & Clark on the horizon, Hain cautions people about water use.

“For most of our history, we’ve been reliant on a single source of water — the Lake Bella wells,” he said. “Now we’ve secured connections with Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water, and hopefully we’ll have Lewis & Clark water in a couple of years. Those sources aren’t expandable.

“We’re going to continue to encourage conservation practices and do everything we can to protect the quality and quantity of water we have at Lake Bella,” he added.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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