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Greater Minnesota cities, labor, environmental groups call for water infrastructure funding boost

Minnesota health department and pollution control officials estimate the state will need to spend $12.5 billion over the next 20 years to keep up with waste and drinking water needs.

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Austin, Minnesota, Mayor Steve King explains the importance of state water infrastructure funding for his city at a news conference at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
Alex Derosier / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — A coalition of labor, environmental groups and cities from across Minnesota is asking legislators to fund clean water projects in the state — including lead pipe and water infrastructure repairs officials estimate could cost billions in the coming decades.

With more than 200 cities planning water infrastructure-related projects, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Conservation Minnesota, and the LiUNA Minnesota & North Dakota, gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 16, to make an appeal to lawmakers for “transformational” levels of funding.

Minnesota health department and pollution control officials estimate the state will need to spend $12.5 billion over the next 20 years to keep up with waste and drinking water needs. A bipartisan bonding proposal in both chambers of the Legislature calls for nearly $300 million for water infrastructure funding, removes a $7 million cap on a water infrastructure grant program, and includes $80 million in general fund requests.

The bill is being carried by Rochester Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Liz Boldon in the House and Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, in the senate.

Austin Mayor Steve King said the legislation will help smaller cities and is vital to keeping the state’s water clean.

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“Cities like Austin play a central role in making sure Minnesota's water is clean through our wastewater drinking water and stormwater systems,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “As those systems age and new regulations are added it becomes very expensive for cities.”

In order to meet new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency requirements for phosphorus limits, the city will have to spend $86.2 million on upgrades to its water system, some of which was built in the 1920s, King said, explaining that residents of the city are already facing a 75% increase in wastewater treatment rates.

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“Obviously this is a very expensive project for our community and we are seeking help from the state so we don’t have to put the full cost burden on our citizens and businesses,” he said. “If we don't receive state funding for our project, the potential rate increase will be so high that … we are concerned people and businesses won’t want to put down roots in Austin. While our city is certainly willing to pay our fair share, we need a financial partnership with the state to help us finish the job.”

The cities coalition, labor and environmental groups said other projects awaiting funding include a $21.1 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade in Willmar that would remove manganese and other problematic minerals from the water supply. In Perham, a project to replace failing water infrastructure in a neighborhood with aging housing stock would cost $1.27 million.

They’re also backing a bipartisan proposal to replace lead pipes across Minnesota, a project that could cost half a billion dollars over the next decade. It’s unclear exactly how many lead water mains remain in Minnesota, but the state health department estimates there are anywhere between 100,000 and 260,000 are still delivering water to homes.

A key part of addressing the issue is identifying and mapping remaining lead pipes, a project that would cost around $10 million. Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, authored a bill that would appropriate that amount to cities and public water suppliers, plus $30 million per year over the next decade to replace the lines. Mountain Lake Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton has joined as author, and Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, also supports the bill.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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