Updated 3:25 p.m. | Posted 11:25 a.m.
Minnesota's aging water treatment plants and sewer systems will start getting some much needed improvements if DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has his way.
Dayton on Thursday proposed a $220 million plan for water and sewer systems. It's the next step in a water quality agenda that the governor began last year when he pushed for a buffer strip requirement to prevent farm field runoff.
Dayton says Minnesota's clean, safe and abundant water supply can no longer be taken for granted and that many rural communities are struggling with the added cost of lowering levels of nitrates, phosphorus and other chemicals in drinking water.
He wants a significant government investment to help those communities but also wants to get citizens involved in protecting water from further contamination.
"Everybody needs to understand it's their responsibility for whatever it is that they're putting into the public sphere being a quality and standard that they would want their own children to be exposed to. That's going to take some time, but we're going to work on in it," Dayton told reporters. "I'm going to make it a priority, as I did last session, for the remaining three years of my term, and I think we can make some important progress."
The biggest part of Dayton's plan is $167 million of state borrowing for a long list of local public works projects, including collection systems, treatment plants and water towers. Those projects will be part of the larger bonding bill proposal he's scheduled to roll out Friday.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine said he visited several communities last fall to learn more from local officials about their water challenges.
"They are definitely committed to meeting our clean water needs in this state, and that was really a resounding message that we heard. We also heard about the age of their infrastructure. We heard about pipes underground older than a hundred years, some made out of wood."
In addition to bonding, the governor's plan would provide a nearly $53 million funding increase to the MPCA, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Metropolitan Council for several existing programs aimed at water quality. It would also leverage more federal funds.
Some of that money will be used for loans and grants to cities, said Jeff Freeman, director of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority.
"The funding is going to allow us to reach many more cities than we otherwise would have been able to," he said. "Cities that have serious water infrastructure needs that many of them just haven't been able to address."
Legislators will come up with their own bonding and spending proposals during the 2016 session. Dayton said he's not sure how much of his plan lawmakers will pass during an election year session.
"I don't think clean water is a partisan issue. It shouldn't be. Minnesotans don't consider it that," he said. "I hope we can get broad, bipartisan agreement."
Rural lawmakers are already aware of many of the proposed projects. State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said he thinks the governor's plan is a conversation starter.
"Whether it be water projects or whether it be maintaining or state buildings, those are some basic things that I think, bipartisanly, we can look at," said Swedzinski, vice chair of the House Capitol Investment Committee. "I think maintaining our critical infrastructure and investments that we've already made is the first good step when developing a bonding bill."
The legislative session begins on March 8. Dayton will highlight his broader agenda for water quality next month. He's invited business leaders, farmers, legislators and others to a daylong water quality summit in St. Paul on Feb. 27.