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Fee on water bills to increase next year

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As part of an effort to address the rising costs of providing safe drinking water, many Minnesotans will pay a higher fee on their water bills beginning next year.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2014

Many Minnesotans will pay a higher fee on their water bills next year, part of an effort to address the rising costs of providing safe drinking water.

Known as the Safe Drinking Water Fee, it shows up on the water bills of residents and businesses that get their drinking water from a public supplier, such as a city.

Revenue from the fee goes to the Minnesota Department of Health, which enforces the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. It helps cover the cost of testing the state's 7,000 public water supplies for pollutants, and helping cities improve their water treatment systems.

This year, the Legislature increased the fee from $6.36 to $9.72 per connection, the first increase since 2005. The fee increase takes effect on Jan. 1.

That equals about a penny a day, said Tom Hogan, environmental health director for the state health department.

"In this day and age, where bottled water can cost anywhere from a dollar to $2.50 a bottle, a penny a day for safe, reliable drinking water coming out of your tap is a deal," Hogan said.

Since the last fee increase, the health department's costs have risen as it grapples with new threats to drinking water, such as pharmaceuticals and harmful algae blooms.

Hogan said the fee especially helps smaller cities trying to address the problem of contaminants in drinking water sources, such as nitrates.

"Minnesota is lucky that we have a pretty safe, reliable drinking water, especially in the sense of groundwater and there is limited need to treat for water quality," he said. "That's changing in some areas of the state."

Smaller cities rely more heavily on technical assistance from the state to meet water quality standards, said Lori Blair, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Rural Water Association, which represents systems serving fewer than 10,000 people.

"This allows the health department to be able to assist, especially small and rural communities, with things that they typically don't have the resources to be able to test properly," she said.

Minnesota cities also are facing mounting costs to repair and replace aging water and wastewater infrastructure, estimated to be about $7 billion over the next 20 years. The Legislature did not pass a major bonding bill this year to help with those upgrades.