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Minnesota grant proposal aims to help cities prepare for climate change

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hopes state lawmakers approve a $2.9 million proposal that would help pay for cities and tribal nations to put together plans to beef up their sewer systems and other infrastructure.

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The Minnesota State Capitol in March. A new report the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget shows state revenue collections in October came in above projections. (Evan Frost / MPR News file)
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GRAND FORKS — Bills in the Minnesota Legislature aim to help cities and tribal nations prepare for the extreme weather brought about by climate change.

HF 1445 and its Senate counterpart SF 1746 would set aside $1.35 million next year and $1.6 million the year after that for a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency “climate resiliency program” that would help cities pay to create plans to beef up their municipal sewer systems. Those cities, the thinking goes, could then throw their plans into the mix for inclusion in future statewide bonding bills.

“The cost of inaction is simply too high for our communities to bear,” Laura Bishop, the agency’s commissioner, told reporters at a news conference. “Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our families and communities. And it's no longer a far-off possibility. It's happening here, right now, with devastating effects that we’ve seen throughout our state.”

Bishop claimed that the 2010s were the wettest decade on record in Minnesota and that 29 wastewater systems overflowed in northwest Minnesota due to extreme weather in the past two years.

In 1998, a derecho and other storms caused $1.5 billion in insured losses statewide, according to Mark Kulda, the vice president of public affairs at the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, a figure that eclipsed the total incurred by the previous 40 years combined.

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“We had decades of stability and all of a sudden in 1998, we had a large catastrophe loss and it hasn't stopped,” Kulda said. “We average now, about every other year, of $1 billion losses.”

The state’s pollution control agency has made similar moves in the past, but its current proposal has one of the highest price tags and applies to work previously unaccounted for by older grant programs. The risk assessment, planning and pre-design work that the new grant program aims to pay for is not eligible for bond funding.

MPCA staff estimate that the program could pay for 15 governments’ risk assessments each year.

“But our experience to date and stakeholder engagement has demonstrated that there’s a huge demand for this kind of financial and technical assistance for communities,” Mary Robinson, a public affairs specialist at the agency, wrote to the Herald. “For example, when the MPCA offered a smaller, one-time amount of grant funding for climate adaptation projects in 2020, the agency received requests for more than $1.3M across more than 30 projects.”

Bishop promoted the idea the same day state administrators predicted a $1.6 billion surplus for the coming fiscal year. It's a a $2.9 billion swing from the $1.3 billion deficit state budgeters projected late last year, which could leave financial room for the grant program.

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Laura Bishop, a former sustainability officer at Best Buy, accepted her appointment to lead the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Hastings. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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