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Dayton vows to get funding for new Detroit Lakes wastewater treatment facility

DETROIT LAKES -- Gov. Mark Dayton was in Detroit Lakes Thursday morning to meet with local officials regarding the city’s plans for a $34 million upgrade to its wastewater treatment facilities – and the urgent need for state funding to support it.

By the end of the hour-long meeting, Dayton was fully on board, stating, “I don’t have a vote with the Minnesota Legislature, but I’ll do whatever I can to get it (the bonding bill) passed.”

He added that even without a special session this year, the bonding bill will be atop his list of priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

“This is just the beginning of what will need to be a continuing effort to help cities like Detroit Lakes to be able to afford these projects,” said Dayton, referring to the fact that Detroit Lakes is one of the first communities in the state to be required to upgrade its wastewater infrastructure to handle new, much more stringent standards for effluent discharge imposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Detroit Lakes Public Utilities General Manager Vernell Roberts started out the morning’s discussion with an overview of the project, noting that if legislation is not passed that will enable the city to receive more state assistance than is currently available, the sewer rates charged to city utility customers would more than double in order to pay for the cost of the wastewater upgrades.

Under existing legislation, the city would be eligible to receive about $7 million in assistance from the Public Facilities Authority (PFA) – but even with this assistance, the project would still drive sewer rates for the average utility customer from the current $30 per month to over $71 per month – a prohibitive increase that would be well above what the PFA has set as the “affordability threshold” for such projects, which is about $47 per month.

“The local median income is $39,846,” Roberts said, noting that the city’s driving goal in seeking this additional state funding is to keep the cost of the wastewater upgrades affordable for its utility customers.

About $15 million of the $34 million price tag for the planned wastewater improvements is attributed to the new, stringent limit on phosphorus concentration for effluent discharge, Roberts noted.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: The existing wastewater treatment facility pumps too much phosphorus into Lake St. Claire, which has been receiving the wastewater discharge from Detroit Lakes for decades.

After a study was done to determine the phosphorus load that the lake system could handle, the MPCA cracked down hard, giving the city until 2022 to reduce its phosphorus discharge into Lake St. Claire by 94 percent.

Roberts said that means going from 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter of water (a standard that is still common around the state) to .066 milligrams of phosphorus per liter.

“We’re going to have one of the most stringent nutrient (i.e., phosphorus) limits in Minnesota, and in the upper Midwest,” Roberts said.

In response to a question from State Rep. Steve Green, Roberts said that the city had explored cheaper options to discharging into Lake St. Claire.

The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District was helpful and open to ideas, which included pumping treated city wastewater 13 miles north to the Buffalo River at Buffalo Lake; or discharging into Becker County Ditch 5, which would have brought treated city wastewater past Audubon and eventually into the Buffalo River.

Due mostly to pumping costs, both those options turned out to be at least as, if not more expensive than the plan that was ultimately settled on by the city.

Green also questioned MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, who was present for Thursday’s discussion as well, on whether the cost of improvements needed to adhere to the more stringent MPCA standards was truly worth the ultimate benefit.

Essentially, Stine said, the answer to that question was yes.

“The old limits were set based on what the current technology could do, not on water quality,” he said.

Roberts noted that while the current water quality in Lake St. Claire was not getting any worse, it was already considered an impaired water body under MPCA standards.
Dennis Kral, president of the Pelican River Watershed District Board of Managers, also spoke out in favor of the more stringent standards imposed by MPCA, noting, “Mistakes cost in the long run, and it would be a big mistake not to get this (plant) built.”

“This is the single largest investment we’ve had in the history of our community,” said Detroit Lakes City Alderman Ron Zeman. “That will have an impact on a lot of other projects we want to do…

“Our median income is $39,500,” he added. “People are already have problems making ends meet week to week. To more than double our current rates…. We need to figure out how to pay for this thing and make (the cost) reasonable. I’m just saying, we need help. A little help is good, but we need more than that.”

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