Coalition pleads for money to fix Minnesota's aging pipes

A pipe carries raw water into the old city water treatment plant.
A pipe carries raw water into the town of Morris' old city water treatment plant, which is being replaced with a new $18 million plant.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News file 2019

A new coalition of cities, business and labor leaders and environmental groups is calling on the Minnesota Legislature to provide at least $300 million to repair aging water infrastructure throughout the state.

Members of the Fix the Pipes Alliance say state lawmakers should pass a bonding bill containing funding to address aging sewer and water pipes and treatment plants — some built more than a half-century ago — and to provide an economic stimulus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We all agree that this is a real opportunity for the state to step up and take advantage of the current market, but also to really address some critical needs for the state of Minnesota,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

Group members said many cities, especially in rural Minnesota, are facing costly upgrades to their wastewater or drinking water treatment plants to meet current environmental standards. They said those upgrades are too costly for most cities to afford on their own.

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“A lot of this stuff was built in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. It’s worn out,” said state Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, chairman of the Senate Capital Investment Committee. “It’s going to need a lot of help in the form of money. This is not, by any means, a problem we solve in one year.”

Many smaller communities struggle with aging infrastructure that doesn’t meet treatment standards for arsenic, nitrates, phosphorus or other contaminants, said Lori Blair, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Water Association.

“These are huge costs for communities, and it's vital that all residents have access to clean and safe drinking water and wastewater treatment,” Blair said.

The city of Two Harbors, Minn., with a population of about 3,500, is seeking $11.5 million in assistance to help pay for a $20 million project to replace its outdated wastewater treatment plant built 65 years ago, said Luke Heikkila, the plant’s superintendent.

He said the upgrades will help the city consistently meet limits on the amount of mercury in the treated wastewater it discharges into Lake Superior.

“Cities like Two Harbors aren't looking for a handout,” Heikkila said. “We are willing to pay our fair share. With a population so small, we absolutely need help from the state to make this reality.”

Typically, cities apply for low-interest loans or grants through the state Public Facilities Authority to tackle infrastructure projects, but the needs often far outweigh the available funding. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Minnesota needs to spend about $1.2 billion in every two-year budget cycle for the next 20 years to address its water infrastructure needs, Morse said.

Alliance members said the water projects would create about 7,200 jobs statewide, mainly in construction, and would have a total economic impact of more than $1.8 billion. They said many of the projects awaiting funding are already designed and ready to start.

The Legislature typically passes a borrowing bill for capital projects during even-numbered years. Gov. Tim Walz included about $300 million for water infrastructure in his $2 billion bonding proposal.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the usual legislative session, with lawmakers meeting virtually or in very limited floor sessions. And House Republicans have threatened to block the measure if Walz doesn’t relinquish emergency powers related to the pandemic. A bonding bill requires a two-thirds majority for approval.

The legislative session is scheduled to end May 18.