Missouri River water deal still needs local money

The Lewis & Clark water project
The Lewis & Clark water project carries water from the Missouri River aquifer in South Dakota to the Minnesota border, shown in blue. The line to Luverne, shown in green, has been fully funded; while the rest, shown in yellow, is funded contingent on local contributions.
MPR News Graphic

Legislators approved a deal last week to ease a water shortage in southwestern Minnesota, but so far it's not clear how that agreement will be implemented and whether local communities can come up with about $7 million in matching money.

The legislation is aimed at completing work on the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, an ambitious project launched in the early 1990s to tap water near the Missouri River and distribute it over parts of South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. But a halt to federal spending mostly ended construction in 2012 and left a pipeline extending only a few hundred feet into Minnesota.

So Minnesota lawmakers agreed to provide the money in two parts, one of which requires some communities to find some of the money.

Supporters say the need for the water has only intensified.

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"To us, (this) basically says Luverne, Minnesota, is going to have plentiful water, for the next 50 years."

Rainfall is 20 inches short of normal in Luverne since 2012. And Mayor Alan Oberloh of nearby Worthington said it's been frustrating to see the region miss the heavy spring rains that recharged water supplies in other parts of Minnesota.

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"We can talk to people that live in the communities 40 miles away and they get a good rain and we get just a little dusting," said Oberloh.

As a result, city well levels are way down and there's a watering ban in place. Oberloh says the legislative deal offers hope that currently unavailable Lewis & Clark supplies will eventually reach the city.

"It's absolutely imperative that we have this water," said Oberloh. "Right now in the ag economy that we live in, we use a fair amount of water. And in order to grow that economy we have to have a reliable water source."

Below-normal rainfall
Unlike the rest of the state, southwestern Minnesota is getting below-normal rainfall again this spring.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Worthington city leaders for years have pointed to the JBS hog plant as an example of how water issues have slowed growth. The massive facility and its roughly 2,000 employees dominate the local economy. But it's been unable to expand because of the water shortage. Oberloh says the legislative deal could change that, although many questions remain to be settled.

The Legislature agreed to provide $22 million in a direct payment for work to resume.

"It's still too early to tell if that's going to work for us."

That will be enough to finish the Lewis & Clark pipeline from the Iowa border to the Luverne area. The work is expected to be complete next year and will hook the Missouri River pipeline to Luverne's nearly 5,000 residents and to the Rock County Rural Water District, which supplies water to several small communities and to hundreds of farmers. The project could deliver up to 750,000 gallons a day to Luverne and 300,000 gallons a day to the Rock County Rural Water District.

"To us, (this) basically says Luverne, Minnesota, is going to have plentiful water, for the next 50 years," said city administrator John Call.

But even when the water reaches Luverne, two other Lewis & Clark members will remain unconnected -- Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water and the city of Worthington, home to nearly 13,000 residents.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said that's where the second part of the legislative deal kicks in. It gives the Minnesota Lewis & Clark members the option to sell $45 million in bonds to finance the final leg of the project.

The end of the Lewis and Clark water pipeline
The end of the Lewis & 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 / File

The state would pay about 85 percent of the debt, leaving local governments and other organizations with about 15 percent, Hamilton said.

That comes to nearly $7 million for the Minnesota members of the water project. The project organizers are still analyzing that part of the package to see if local communities can swing it, said Lewis & Clark executive director Troy Larson.

"We can talk to people 40 miles away and they get a good rain and we get just a little dusting."

"We hope that that's a viable option for us to allow us to get the water to Worthington," said Larson. "But it's still too early to tell if that's going to work for us."

The project has the capacity to deliver 1.7 million gallons a day to Worthington and 1 million to Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water.

Larson says Lewis & Clark representatives will likely meet with Minnesota state officials in the next month to get details.

Even in the best case, it will be at least three years before the pipeline reaches Worthington, Larson said.