Across rural Minnesota, water woes threaten to choke small town growth

3M Co., Pentair, Ecolab and other Minnesota businesses see great potential in the growing worries over the supply and demand for water, as MPR News reporter Martin Moylan pointed out earlier this week.

But there's a flip side to the money-water question.


Water issues threaten to throttle economic development in places -- mainly rural -- where the costs of delivering good water and carrying away sewage are set to overwhelm taxpayers,  the Mankato, Minn.-based Center for Rural Policy and Development warns in its newest report, "The State of Water."

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The center is a non-partisan, non-profit research organization that has generated a variety of research in the state, looking at issues from a rural perspective.

For many reasons -- water scarcity, increased demand, contamination, old and leaky pipes -- a lot of Minnesota communities from Worthington to Two Harbors need water infrastructure help, the center says. Without it, the chance for economic growth is dim.

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The irony, though, is that to make those infrastructure improvements, cities need a tax base from which they can raise funds to pay off infrastructure loans. And to get that tax base, they need economic development. The smaller the city, the smaller the tax base, and therefore, a decreased ability to pay for the necessary improvements.

Upgrading facilities raises water and sewer rates, which makes it harder for a community to compete with neighbors, the report argued.

The report took note of MPR News reporter Mark Steil's coverage last week on the hundreds of irrigation wells that lack permits, making it harder to figure out the status of Minnesota's groundwater.

Likewise, it notes that many small cities similarly have something out of whack. Of the 264 small towns with state permits to pump water for their residents, more than two-thirds failed to report to the state either how much water they pumped or how much end users used or they reported delivering more water than they actually pumped.

It's hard to get a handle on things if that's the case.

Is it time, the report asked, "to invest again in an overhaul of the way we handle water and wastewater infrastructure in Greater Minnesota—particularly in how it’s funded? If so, who has the will to lead the way?"

The center makes several recommendations:

  • Establish a Legislative Water Commission that would try to coordinate information about water, particularly if it has rural representation. Such a plan has been proposed in the Legislature.

  • Recognize that as water contamination requirements get tighter, they place disproportionate burdens on small communities. And be aware of the long-term decline in federal funding for infrastructure.

  • Start planning long-term for re-working small-city infrastructure.

  • Support state agencies' efforts to get more information about the state's water.

  • Think differently about some of the smallest communities with troubled water infrastructure

"It is hard to admit, but there are some towns that do not have a realistic chance of growing," the report says, but adds:

However, it does not have to be an all-or-nothing future for them. There are alternatives to a traditional full-scale wastewater treatment facility. Encourage state agencies like the Pollution Control Agency and the Public Facilities Authority to continue working with the smallest communities and their engineers to explore these alternatives first.