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High Cost, Dry Town

May 11, 2012, 10:00 PM by David Brown

High Cost, Dry Town

The Lewis & Clark water system is designed to serve 20 communities in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. But 12 years after being signed into law, only half of those areas have Lewis & Clark water.

Yet even those without water have already paid millions of dollars into the project.

The city of Luverne, Minnesota, once saw the Lewis & Clark regional water system as an opportunity flowing with excitement. But now, the anticipation has slowed to a drip.

"This is the worst time I've seen in my 22 years on the board," Lewis & Clark executive committee member Red Arndt said.

Arndt used to be Luverne's utilities superintendent. He currently makes his home in the town and says the project was supposed to decrease the city's dependence on 16 different wells. Now, Luverne is building another one this summer.

"We probably would not have needed that if we had Lewis & Clark here or in the next year or so," Arndt said.

The new well will cost $60,000. That's just one of several expenses the city's had to make over the years, including $300,000 for a reclaim tank, which recycles old water. There's also the investment into Lewis & Clark itself.

"We have given Lewis & Clark $1.5 million for our share," Arndt said.

"Worthington has invested a little more than $3.8 million in the project," Worthington Utilities Superintendent Scott Hain said.

Hain says 20 local communities have all paid their fair share. 10 percent of the project costs come from individual towns, another 10 percent from the states and 80 percent from the federal government.

"Congress approved this project," Hain said. "Congress needs to figure out a way to get it funded."

"Under the proposed funding by the President for this year and next year, the project would never be completed," Lewis and Clark executive director Troy Larson said.

Larson says the system will receive $5 million in federal funding this year and $4.5 million in 2013. It's a sum that's laughable to the communities that have already paid up.

"$4 million is only two miles of pipe," Arndt said. "When you have to go hundreds of miles, that isn't very much."

"$35 million is what we've requested every year," Larson said. "If we were to get $35 million a year, we'd be completed in roughly 2020 or 2021."

Yet even with that amount of funding, the project would still be five years behind schedule. Lewis & Clark was authorized back in 2000 by President Bill Clinton with an expected completion date of 2016. Minnesota Senator Al Franken has visited Lewis & Clark multiple times over the years and is spearheading the effort to get more money flowing.

"He understands the project; he really believes in it," Arndt said. "He understands why we need it. We couldn't ask for a better person doing what he's doing."

The Minnesota Democrat's also received backing from several South Dakota and Iowa legislators, including Republicans John Thune and Kristi Noem.

"We've got all kinds of congressional support," Hain said. "That support hasn't waned. But the bottom line is, there isn't money flowing out of Washington."

Community leaders say the Lewis & Clark project is impacting their towns' bottom lines in three different ways. First, the cost of the project itself. Second, the money needed to maintain their current water infrastructure. Third, the loss of businesses that want to move into their communities.

"We're having to maintain and drill extra wells and doing the wells we wouldn't have to do," Arndt said.

"We don't have an option of just spending money locally, drilling additional wells and expanding on our water resources," Hain said.

"You have the situation with the pork processing plant in Worthington not being able to expand," Larson said. "We have a cheese factory in Hull, Iowa, that's not able to expand."

And when businesses can't grow, it's tough for the communities themselves to expand with such limited water resources. That's why conservation efforts are already underway. The city of Luverne is even considering offering rebate money for those who purchase low-flush toilets.

"We're working with our businesses; we're working with our citizens to try and come up with plans in order to do that," Arndt said.

"We have been employing fairly aggressive conservation measures for years, even pre-Lewis & Clark," Hain said.

Until then, these communities are left with an investment that's cost them in more ways than one and relying on one source to keep the faucets running.

"The federal funding is all we have left," Larson said. "We've spent all of our local money. That has been prepaid; the state money has been prepaid. So, the only funding source left is the federal government."

Once a new treatment plant is completed this summer, Larson says 11 of the 20 communities who've invested in Lewis & Clark will receive water.

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