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Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota See New Hope for Pipeline Project (…Not THAT Pipeline).

When budget cuts are being debated it is often difficult to envision their long-term and broad-ranging impact. One such case is the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, the nearly decade old infrastructure project that would bring running water to over 300,000 people in rural areas of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

Hit by cuts in the fiscal year 2012 budget, the progress of the project is now up in the air. This could cost many of the cities who planned on receiving water in the next year to scramble to find funds to maintain their outdated and inefficient systems. A recent flurry of work by politicians from the affected areas, though, may bring some of the necessary funding in, giving hope to those who are waiting for clean running water to come to their towns:

The remainder of the project seemed securely stalled when President Obama’s 2012 budget allocated only $493,000, barely enough for ongoing administrative expenses and certainly not enough for new construction. That was further reduced to $487,000 in an omnibus budget bill.

However, in final negotiations on the comprehensive federal budget bill, Congress found an additional $30 million for six Bureau of Reclamation water projects, including Lewis & Clark, and Executive Director Troy Larson hopes it qualifies for $10 million or more of that.

The $10 million in funding would be a godsend for towns like Rock Rapids, Iowa:

With $10 million, the project can extend its pipeline to connect Rock Rapids, Iowa, build a perimeter fence around the water treatment plant, buy needed equipment for the plant and do minimal landscaping, Larson said.

If it receives less than $10 million, the board of directors must decide whether to continue construction “that ends in the middle of a field” or hold onto the money until 2013. The board then would apply it to whatever funding it receives for more ambitious construction that connects customers, he said.

The Lewis & Clark project may turn out to be a rare instance of politicians coming together to help meet their constituents’ major needs:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in a statement said, “I have been working with Secretary (of the Interior Ken) Salazar and the Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota congressional delegations to move this project forward as quickly as possible, and securing these additional funds is a positive step towards achieving this goal.

“I will continue to work across state and party lines to ensure the federal government honors its commitment to these communities and provides the resources needed to finish the project.”

With Rock Rapids being the next Lewis & Clark target, Rock Rapids Utilities Manager Jim Hoye called the prospect of additional money “very important to us.”

Rock Rapids already sells water to two other rural water systems that serve all of Lyon County, and access to Lewis & Clark water “will help us meet those demands,” Hoye said.

“We will be grateful whenever it happens,” he said. “A year earlier would be better.”

Towns further down the pipeline, like Luverne, MN, must find ways to continue to fund their failing systems as they wait to see if money can be found to complete the project. Just as the economy has caused the federal government to make drastic cuts, local governments have been hampered tenfold:

“We were supposed to have water in 2012,” said Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian. Because that is not going to happen, Luverne spent $300,000 on a system to reclaim water the city uses to backflush the filters needed to strain heavy concentrations of iron and manganese from water produced by city wells.

Luverne also is spending $400,000 for two new wells to provide water to the Gevo ethanol plant in Luverne.

“We would not be spending that $700,000 if we knew Lewis & Clark would be here within a year,” Baustian said.

Spending by Luverne as a result of Lewis & Clark construction delays is not unusual, Larson said. All told, Luverne, Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and Rock County Rural Water in Minnesota, Sioux Center in Iowa, and Centerville and Beresford in South Dakota have been forced to spend $9.3 million on various projects to boost their water supplies because Lewis & Clark funding shortfalls have caused it to fall behind its construction schedule.

For all the frustration associated with the project, though, Baustian said Lewis & Clark remains the best bet for the future.

“Right now, we have so many holes in the ground here trying to get water,” he said. “Lewis & Clark is the most cost-effective measure for water for Luverne. When we can get treated water to the city gate at the rates we will be paying, it is by far the most cost effective measure we can use.”


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