Pipeline to 'nowhere' no more: water project nears Worthington

Pipes are stacked near Worthington, Minn., last week.
Pipes are stacked near Worthington, Minn., last week for the Lewis and Clark water pipeline as workers do preliminary work on the project.
Mark Steil | MPR News

It's been a long wait for the city of Worthington in southwestern Minnesota. But the end is near.

"That is where Lewis and Clark's pipeline ends," said Scott Hain, Worthington Public Utilities general manager. "And once the water flows through that meter it belongs to Worthington and we can do with it whatever we wish."

Hain points to a small building on the grounds of the city water treatment plant. It'll be the end point of the Lewis and Clark pipeline in Minnesota.

The project draws water from near the Missouri River in South Dakota, and pipes it to more than 300,000 customers in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. Once Lewis and Clark is completed to Worthington next fall, it'll provide the city of 13,000 with some much-needed water security.

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"The way we see it is Lewis and Clark offers us that safety blanket where we're going to be able to ride out that next drought period," said Hain.

For years, the stalled project caused problems for communities and rural water supply systems in Minnesota as the region struggled with on-and-off drought, stretching existing water supplies and led to watering bans and other restrictions.

In 2013, the line ended in a field near the Minnesota-Iowa border, "in the middle of nowhere" as one official described it, because there was no money to continue construction.

The Lewis and Clark pipeline is nearing completion
Drawing water up from the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark pipeline is nearing completion. It is bringing water to parts of South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, and the final construction will carry water to Worthington.
William Lager | MPR News Graphic

Now, stacks of blue pipes line the project's route into Worthington. When it's finished, the city will use about two million gallons of water a day from the pipeline — about two-thirds of the Worthington's daily needs.

The city's main water source right now is a well field, south of town. During dry periods, the well water level can drop by as much as a foot a week, putting Worthington's water access in a precarious spot. In recent years the city has implemented water restrictions during times of drought.

It's a matter of geology. The glaciers left few good, groundwater sources in southwest Minnesota. Instead of water-bearing sand, the region got lots of clay soil.

It's great for growing crops but rarely holds the large, underground aquifers needed for dependable drinking water supplies. So when the newly formed Lewis and Clark organization started holding meetings in the region in 1990, many communities were interested.

"Once I saw what we could get for water, it was a godsend," said Red Arndt of Luverne, longtime member of the Lewis and Clark board.

But it was a nearly three-decade-long road from conception to completion. The main problem was funding. The federal government 18 years ago agreed to pay 80 percent of the project's cost. But the money has been doled out slowly, forcing an equally slow construction pace.

"It took us a lot longer to get authorized and it's taken us a lot longer to get constructed than what we ever thought would be," said Arndt.

Luverne was hooked up to the water pipeline two years ago. Already there have been economic benefits.

The truShrimp company has announced it plans to build a hatchery and production center in Luverne. The company will employ about 170 workers and produce more than seven million pounds of shrimp a year there. The new water supply played a role in the Luverne decision.

"Lewis and Clark was certainly a big part of that, just the availability and the quality of the water that's coming in," said Robert Gervais, truShrimp's director of operations and government relataions.

Economics are also important farther east, in Worthington. The Lewis and Clark water will help ensure a dependable flow to Worthington's largest employer, the JBS hog processing plant. JBS employs more than 2,000 workers and uses more than half the city's daily water output.

The third major customer of the pipeline in southwest Minnesota is Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water, which supplies water to towns and farms across a 10-county area.

But even when the Minnesota portion is completed later this year, the three-state Lewis and Clark project will not be completely done. Several towns in Iowa and South Dakota are still waiting for the water to reach them.

But Hain, the Worthington Public Utilities manager, says even though it's taken decades, it's been worth the wait.

"Lewis and Clark system is going to be around forever," said Hain.