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Small towns in rural Minnesota struggle to find money to replace sewer, water systems

DENNISON, Minn. — It was not in Jeff Flaten’s job description 15 months ago when he was elected mayor of Dennison, Minn.

Every day, including weekends and holidays, Flaten drives to a sewer lift station on the west edge of the tiny Goodhue County town, pries opens a manhole-size steel lid and climbs 15 feet down a ladder in a metal tube to make sure the village’s two wastewater pumps are working.

The task landed in the mayor’s lap when the city’s longtime sewer and water system operator retired. Flaten hasn’t been able to hire a replacement, because not only is the work unpleasant but the lift station, built in 1962, also fails to meet federal safety standards.

“It’s obsolete and essentially dangerous,” he said.

Flaten, 49, a state corrections officer with a college degree in sociology, didn’t know anything about operating a sewer pump before he was elected. On a couple of occasions, he said, he’s had to restart the pumps by hand. About once a week, he also has to clean out a screen that catches debris before it clogs the pumps.

“Somebody’s got to do it. If the poop’s not moving, then it’s going to back up in the sewer mains,” he said.

Flaten has asked Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature for $726,000 this year to build an above-ground lift station. The city, population 190, proposes to chip in another $48,000, funded in part with a new $25 monthly water fee on residents, to complete the project.

Dennison simply can’t afford to pay for the project on its own, Flaten said. “The city is already up to its eyeballs in debt,” its property taxes are higher than neighboring cities and another fee increase might drive people away.

Not alone

The village is one of hundreds of small cities in rural Minnesota with diminutive tax bases that are struggling to find money to replace aging wastewater, stormwater and drinking water systems or upgrade them to meet changing environmental standards.

Here are four more examples of other small towns seeking state help:

  • Afton, population 2,953, in Washington County, doesn’t have a municipal sewer system, so about 100 homes and businesses in the city’s Old Village rely on private septic systems that pose a pollution threat, as many are in the St. Croix River flood plain. The city is getting final state approvals and taking construction bids for a municipal sewer collection system and wastewater treatment plant. City administrator Ron Moorse expects the system to be operational by the fall at a cost of more than $4 million, with the state picking up about half the tab.
  • Chisholm, Buhl, Kinney and Great Scott Township, combined population 6,745, in St. Louis County. Less than two years after opening a $28 million Central Iron Range Sanitary Sewer District wastewater treatment plant, operators were told the plant failed to meet strict new federal mercury discharge limits for facilities releasing water into the Great Lakes basin. So the district is now adding a mercury removal facility. Price tag: more than $4 million. Local officials have asked the state to foot at least half the bill. “Without the grant money, we just wouldn’t be able to do it,” said sewer district executive director Norm Miranda.
  • Mountain Lake, population 2,134, in Cottonwood County. The city used to have a problem with stormwater infiltrating its sanitary sewer lines and overloading its treatment plant, forcing the city to pump sewage into its namesake lake. It spent $12 million from 2012-14 to fix its sewer lines. Now, the city wants a state grant to help pay for a $13.4 million project to rehabilitate and expand its old and overloaded stabilization pond system.
  • Winnebago, population 1,394, in Faribault County has an aging sanitary sewer system with numerous maintenance problems, including storm- and groundwater seeping into leaky sewer mains, which has caused backups into basements and overflows into the Blue Earth River. “We’ve had whole potatoes from gardens end up at the wastewater plant,” said city administrator Chris Ziegler. The city is seeking $3.7 million from the state for a $6.6 million project that would separate its sanitary sewer and stormwater systems.

Down payment plan

Last month, Dayton proposed a $220 million plan to upgrade sewer and water systems and protect groundwater across the state. About 60 percent of the state aid for water projects money would go to rural communities.

His plan would increase state aid for municipal sewer and water projects from an average of $160 million to $300 million a year and enable the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, which provides grants and loans to local governments, to fund up to 80 projects a year, compared with fewer than 50 now, said Jeff Freeman, the authority’s executive director.

But that would just be a down payment on meeting cities’ needs. The Pollution Control Agency and the state Health Department have 567 local projects totaling $1.7 billion on their priority lists for funding for sewer and water system construction over the next five years.

Based on a survey of Minnesota cities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the state will need $11 billion in sewer and water improvements over the next 20 years.

Lawmakers warming

Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor members of the House and Senate bonding committees seem to be warming up to Dayton’s request for more money for municipal water projects — even though Republicans contend the $1.4 billion price tag on the governor’s overall bonding bill was too high.

House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to helping cities, especially small towns, upgrade their sewer and water systems.

“I think there’s generally good support from the people I’ve talked to so far,” he said. “I will give the governor’s proposal very serious consideration. The only concern I have is that we invest the money wisely.”

Too stringent?

Some lawmakers, however, question whether new PCA water discharge regulations are driving up water treatment costs unnecessarily.

In recent years, the agency has adopted new phosphorus standards for discharges into lakes and rivers to prevent algae growth that causes what Katrina Kessler, PCA’s water assessment section manager, called “green and slimy water conditions.”

But Sens. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said the PCA’s new standards are forcing many small towns that have borrowed money to construct new sewage treatment plants in recent years to go deeper in debt to upgrade their systems. They want the PCA to prove that the benefits of the new regulations outweigh the costs.

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