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Is the Lewis and Clark project a pipeline to nowhere?

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The Lewis and Clark water pipeline is stalled.
A lack of federal funding has frozen the Lewis and Clark water pipeline along the Minnesota-Iowa border. John Call, Luverne's city administrator, has said the city will build new wells to make up for the lack of water that was expected to come from the pipeline.
Jackson Forderer / For MPR News

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was supposed to supply millions of gallons of badly needed water to southwest Minnesota. Instead, it's Minnesota's pipeline to nowhere.

More than 100 miles of pipe have been laid in South Dakota and Iowa. But not a drop of water has crossed into Minnesota.

Map: Lewis & Clark project progress

The stalled project is causing problems for communities and rural water supply systems that trusted Lewis & Clark water would be flowing by now from household faucets. More than two years of on-and-off drought have stretched existing water supplies and led to watering bans and other restrictions. 

The line "kind of just ends in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of that field," Lewis & Clark board chair Red Arndt said as he walked farmland recently on the Minnesota-Iowa border. 

Luverne City Administrator John Call
Luverne City Administrator John Call surveys the barren landscape along the Minnesota-Iowa border, at the location where the Lewis and Clark water project pipeline ends. The city of Luverne is now left with trying to find a solution to the problem of not getting any water from the Lewis and Clark water project, due to a lack of federal funding.
Jackson Forderer / For MPR News

It ends in this useless location because there's no money to lay more. Construction stopped after Congress failed to deliver promised funding. 

The pipeline extends a little into Minnesota, but only by about 400 feet, said Arndt, as he stood near steel pipes sticking out of a slab of concrete, the junction where water is supposed to be directed from northwest Iowa into Minnesota.

Lewis & Clark is supplying water to some South Dakota and Iowa communities. It draws water from the Missouri River in South Dakota, treats it and then pipes the water north and east. It still gets a little federal money, but only enough to maintain what's already operating. 

Arndt, who lives in southwest Minnesota and has worked more than 20 years on the project's planning and construction, says he's not optimistic Congress will send more funds anytime soon. 

The end of the Lewis and Clark water pipeline
The end of the Lewis and Clark water pipeline sits within mere feet of the Minnesota border in Northwestern Iowa. A lack of federal funding for the project has stopped the pipeline from reaching communities in Southwestern Minnesota.
Jackson Forderer / For MPR News

Local officials say that's a threat to the region's economic development. 

Luverne, Minn., has spent about $400,000 developing water supplies to make up for the Lewis & Clark shortfall. If the project lies dormant into next summer, the city will spend another $1 million, mainly to dig new wells and process the water, said city administrator John Call. 

"We know we can probably get some more water out of our south well field," he said. It's money we didn't really want to spend, but at least we're doing something." 

The cost of digging new wells is especially frustrating because the city has already paid nearly $2 million to Lewis & Clark for water that never arrived.

The Minnesota cities and water supply systems that are members of Lewis & Clark are now looking to the state Legislature for construction money. They hope to get some in next year's bonding bill.   

"The states are having to pick up what the federal government initially committed to do," said Gerald Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. State officials, he added, hope they can recapture some of the money later on if the federal government comes back.

Lewis & Clark is not the only stalled project, Galloway said. The same pattern is seen in plans as diverse as restoring the Everglades to building more waste water treatment plants.

For Lewis & Clark supporters, that's not good news. They need about $70 million to finish the project but the work can only begin if there's a thaw in the funding process and the money starts to flow again.