State, not feds, gives L&C boost it needed

MARSHALL – The frustration with the federal government is still there among its supporters, but the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System can once again move forward, thanks to the state of Minnesota.

L&C Executive Director Troy Larson calls the $22 million awarded to the project in the recently-passed construction bill monumental news – “the best news we’ve had in five years. Finally, we can move forward after being stuck in neutral for so long.”

The $22 million, however, doesn’t buy contentment and does nothing to alleviate the growing frustration supporters of the project have with the federal government and its unwillingness to continue to provide funding.

“The state recognizes the value of this project; they know how critically important this is, and that message is just not resonating on the federal level,” Larson said. “What don’t they get about water?”

Other than small bits of construction, there has been very little progress on the system during the last few years. Larson said no new contracts have been awarded and no new easements have been acquired in the past year. L&C is 65 percent complete and when finished will serve an estimated 300,000 people in southeast South Dakota, northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota.

Larson said the move by the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton to appropriate bonding dollars to the project shows supporters that the state is 100 percent behind completion of the massive multi-state project.

“It is incredibly refreshing for us to actually have a governor and legislative leaders saying, ‘We get it, we understand what you’re trying to do.’ They’re trying to help even though they’re not required to.”

The federal government, Larson said, is required to help back the project financially by authorizing the project but are providing funding “in drips.” The remaining federal cost share for L&C was $194 million in 2010 but ballooned to $203 million last year due to inflation. L&C members were forced to turn to the three states involved for funding and the states, along with 20 members have prepaid 100 percent of their non-federal cost share – a total of $154 million.

Larson said the lack of recent support from the feds highlights a disconnect in Washington, and he can’t fathom why federal support for the project has dwindled given there are no roadblocks in the way of its potential progress.

“There is no opposition to Lewis & Clark,” he said. “The Republicans agree, the Democrats agree, the agencies say it’s a high priority. There’s no environmental opposition. No one’s opposed to it – and they can’t get it done. That shows you how dysfunctional D.C. is where everyone agrees and still can’t get anything done.”

Currently, the L&C pipeline ends at the Minnesota/Iowa border. The $22 million from the state – which will not impact the federal government’s funding obligation – will be used to construct the line from the border to Luverne and then east to Magnolia. This segment of pipeline is said to be shovel-ready and L&C will likely award a contract this summer.

Construction is expected to begin in the fall, with water arriving in Luverne in the fall of 2015.

Although a timeline hasn’t been set for construction on a second connection to Rock County Rural Water District (RCRWD) – the segment of line between Luverne and Magnolia – Larson estimates it will be receiving water at the second connection point by the fall of 2016. Once Luverne and RCRWD are connected, L&C will be serving water to 13 of its 20 members; the remaining seven will be: Madison, S.D.; Hull, Sheldon, Sibley and Sioux Center in Iowa; and Lincoln Pipestone RWS and Worthington in Minnesota.

Project supporters said local legislators Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and Reps. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, along Dayton, were the leading forces behind the bipartisan funding charge at the Capitol.

“I feel very, very good about Lewis & Clark,” Dayton said in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. “It wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, and I pushed it really hard with Democratic leadership. I said this was a target area because it’s so essential to the survival and thriving of that region of the state.”

Dayton said he is disappointed in a federal government that would target a project, commit to pay for it and then “essentially back out. Hopefully they’ll do more in the future. But we can’t wait too long on that.”