Slow moving water supply project nears completion in south Minn.

Water sample
John Blomme of the Minnesota Department of Health takes a water sample at a pump station in rural Round Lake, Minn. Blomme said he conducts a sanitary survey every 15 months. A cut in funding for the Lewis and Clark water project is affecting parts of Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota.
Jackson Forderer for MPR

A shortfall in federal funding has slowed construction of a massive water supply system for southwest Minnesota and other areas.

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is designed to serve about 300,000 people in South Dakota and Iowa and more than 20,000 residents of Minnesota. But a congressional ban on earmarks — funding for specific state or local projects requested by members of Congress — halted the direct flow of money to Lewis & Clark.

It's taken more than 20 years to move the Lewis & Clark water project to near completion. It could begin pumping in two or three months when water from the Missouri River begins flowing to towns in South Dakota and Iowa. But that is as far as it will flow, at least for this year. For Minnesota customers, which includes the 13,000 residents of Worthington, a drought of federal funding means the water is still a long way away.

Federal funding was already short when last year's congressional ban on so-called earmarks deepened the problem. Some wonder now if the project will ever be finished.

"At the level that we've been funded over the last few years, this project will never get done," said Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain. "The federal government isn't even keeping up with inflation on the project," Hain said.

Hain said project managers initially told him that water would arrive in Worthington by 2014. Now it looks like that won't happen until 2021 or later — possibly much later.

The city needs the new supply. Unlike most of Minnesota, the southwest part of the state is relatively water poor. Supplies are limited and of low quality.

Hain said the cut-off of federal dollars is especially disappointing because Worthington and the other Minnesota participants have already paid for their share of the project, nearly $15 million total. He said the most serious blow to federal funding came last year.

"What really hurt the project is the ban on earmarks," Hain said.

Earmarks are funding for specific, state or local projects — generally regarded by critics as pork barrel spending.

Because of the ban on such funding, the project must rely on a new, less direct, funding mechanism. Congress now gives a pot of money to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which decides how much money Lewis and Clark will receive. This year, that amounted to about $5 million.

Supporters say they need at least $35 million to stay on schedule. The funding slowdown has forced some expected Lewis & Clark customers to spend extra money elsewhere for water, said Dennis Healy, CEO of Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water, which provides water to nearly three dozen towns and some 4,200 farms and rural residents in southwest Minnesota.

When Healy opens this faucet on a pipeline near Worthington, the water comes not from Lewis & Clark's Missouri River source, but rather from just across the border in Iowa. When work on the Lewis & Clark was delayed, Lincoln Pipestone decided to buy the Iowa water to replace what Lewis & Clark was supposed to deliver.

"We spent well in excess of $5 million that wouldn't have been spent if we had the Lewis & Clark water," Healy said.

Healy said the slow pace of building Lewis & Clark could hurt economic development and job creation in the area. Officials in several towns, including Worthington, say they have had to turn away potential industry because they don't have the water to meet business needs.

But while "earmark ban" are dirty words for Lewis & Clark backers, that's not true everywhere. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the ban should stay in place. He said with a third party like the Bureau of Reclamation deciding Lewis & Clark funding, the money is awarded more on a project's merits, less on congressional political muscle.

"If this project is really as great and as critical as they're saying, then yeah, it would rise to the top and they actually might get some more resources than they were under the old earmark system," Ellis said.

Bureau of Reclamation officials dispute that. They say Congress did not appropriate enough money to fund Lewis & Clark as well as other deserving water projects.

With Congress deadlocked over the issue, water supporters are turning to voters for help. They hope the Congress elected in November is more sympathetic to earmarks, and may vote to modify or even eliminate the earmark ban.

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