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‘Year of Water Action’ aims for ripple effect

Dan Heilman//October 19, 2016

‘Year of Water Action’ aims for ripple effect

Dan Heilman//October 19, 2016

In the last legislative session, the proposed bonding bill included a section that would have expanded the state’s existing wastewater infrastructure program to provide supplemental money to government entities under the drinking water revolving fund program. Of course, that provision went away when the session ended without the capital investment bill, S.F. 2839, being passed. But the government and lawmakers are laying the groundwork for something similar to become law when the legislature reconvenes in January.

In August, Gov. Mark Dayton declared the impending 12 months to be the Year of Water Action — a month-by-month focus on various aspects of conserving and improving water quality in Minnesota. During the year, each month carries a theme of emphasis — from clean water’s effect on the economy to technological advances that are helping the effort.

“There are a couple of purposes to it,” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine told Capitol Report. “One is just to raise the awareness among every Minnesotan of the meaning our waters have — 11,842 lakes, 90,000 miles of streams, huge groundwater resources. We’re the envy of many states because we have so many waters that are not impaired under the federal definition.”

Indeed, Dayton’s focus on his clean water initiative seems to start with the person on the street — or on the lake. “It’s up to Minnesota families and private industry to lead the way with most land privately owned and private water usage comprising the majority of consumption in the state,” reads the introductory text to Dayton’s initiative. In fact, the website containing the state’s Year of Water Action material contains a downloadable, five-point “water stewardship pledge” for Minnesotans to read.

“Landowners, if they have a role to play, it’s because the decisions they make with their land are mostly under their control,” said Stine.

But, choosing whether or not to water one’s lawn probably won’t have the same impact as policy changes decided on at the Capitol. According to Stine, the infrastructure for Minnesota’s drinking water and sewage treatment has reached the end of its useful life in lots of areas in the state. As an example, fixing the state’s deteriorating sewer systems would mean a $4.2 billion investment over 20 years, according to the MPCA.

“We need to put some dollars into repairing those,” he said. “It’s more important for us to deal with the investments.”

Up from the deep

That’s where the Water Infrastructure Funding Program that fell by the wayside last session might re-emerge from the depths. Stine and Rep. Paul Torkelson — who served on the Capital Investment Committee that crafted the last bonding bill — both look forward to some version of the program being discussed when the Legislature reconvenes.

“I chaired the Cap Investment Committee in this last term, and I was disappointed that this didn’t make it,” said Torkelson, R-Hanska. “We had significant investment in water quality in the capital Investment bill that really lined up with the governor’s priorities. That bill didn’t make it across the finish line for a variety of reasons.”

He noted that some cities have gone ahead with water infrastructure projects despite the lack of a bonding bill, knowing that they’ll risk the ire of citizens by drawing from increased property taxes to pay for the projects.

“We did have significant bipartisan agreement last year on a bonding bill that would have invested in our infrastructure, including conservation reserve enhancement program funds for agricultural areas,” said Stine. “I think you can expect those to come back. You’ll see it come up in multiple areas this session.”

As it was worded in the bonding bill, the Water Infrastructure Funding Program would also have increased the caps for grants from $4 million to $5 million per project or from $15,000 to $20,000 for every aspect of a project that needed repair, whichever totaled less. It would also have kept governmental units from putting off payment of assessments in order to repay loans, as well as removing a provision that specifies the amount and timing of loan repayments.

What form a new bill might take might depend in part of the Legislature’s makeup following the Nov. 8 elections.

“It will be revisited,” agreed Torkelson, “but timing will be an issue. We won’t start strategizing in earnest until after the election.

“It’s a difficult area to make progress in, but progress can be made.”


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