Mankato Free Press

By Mark Fischenich

MANKATO — After state politicians came through with an unexpectedly generous $35 million contribution to the planned modernization of Mankato’s regional sewage treatment plant, city officials — perhaps especially so in Lake Crystal — are hoping Congress will chip in another $9.1 million later this year.

If the funding is approved in the nation’s capital, utility customers in Mankato and six or seven nearby communities will be required to cover just half of the cost of the project — with an estimated total of $85 million to $89 million. And if it happens, Lake Crystal will likely be invited to join cities ranging from North Mankato to Madison Lake in sending wastewater to the Mankato plant rather than upgrading its own facility at a cost sometimes estimated at $20 million or more.

“I think we have an anticipated path forward,” Mankato City Manager Susan Arntz said of the massive upgrade of the plant. “The congressionally directed spending would, of course, make that much more complete.”

Congressionally directed spending is the current version of the practice once known as “earmarking.” After being prohibited for more than a decade following accusations of corruption and wasteful spending, earmarks returned two years ago with a new name and new rules.

Funding now must go only to government and nonprofits, not to for-profit businesses. And there’s additional transparency in the process with all requests by all lawmakers posted online. Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. senators — Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — are supporting hundreds of requests from Minnesota, including $9.15 million for the Mankato project.

“The best ideas come from the people living in communities across Minnesota — and the project to modernize the Mankato regional wastewater treatment plant is a perfect example of that,” Smith said in a statement to The Free Press. “One of the best parts of my job is helping Minnesotan communities turn their local and regional projects into reality with federal support.”

There are eight spending categories in the Senate process, each scrutinized by a different Senate subcommittee and federal agency staff. In the “Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies” category alone, Smith’s list includes more than 100 requests. Mankato’s request is the fifth largest in the group, behind sewer and water projects ranging from $21 million in Austin to $10 million in Monticello.

Members of Smith’s staff said they hope to see a list from the Senate Appropriations Committee by the month’s end of the projects that are likely to make the final cut when spending bills are completed this fall. A year ago, 114 of the Smith-supported Minnesota projects in all eight spending categories received some level of funding — just a fraction of the total requests and often less than the entire amount being sought.

In the two years since the new process has been in place, virtually every project on the Appropriations Committee list released in the summer survived in the final budget bills approved by the House and Senate late in the year, according to Smith’s office.

Klobuchar also pledged in a statement to The Free Press to continue to advocate for the Mankato project.

“This project to make badly needed updates to the regional wastewater treatment facility and disinfection system would make a real difference for the more than 65,000 residents it serves, and I’m continuing to push for funding for these upgrades,” the state’s senior senator said.

Attempts to reach 1st District Rep. Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm, for an update on the House’s “Community Project Funding” process were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Arntz said it would be important to have a solid answer on the fate of the funding by later this summer to complete preparations for putting the project out for bids in October or November with a goal of getting construction underway in 2024.

In the coming months, city officials and consultants will be examining whether the bulk of the project can be accomplished even if the federal funds come up short. One option would be to delay an expansion of the biosolids storage area — the place where the nonliquid byproducts of the treatment process are aerated and otherwise prepared for trucking to farms where the material is spread on fields. But that expansion in capacity is necessary to add the waste from Lake Crystal’s 2,500 residents.

“If we have to reduce something right now, the easiest and most likely thing to get reduced and done in a future stage is the biosolids storage,” Arntz said. “And we need that to add Lake Crystal.”

Lake Crystal City Administrator Angela Grafstrom didn’t return a call from The Free Press Wednesday afternoon seeking comment on how intent city leaders are to immediately join the regional partnership. Arntz said the waiting period for a congressional answer provides time for further discussions with Lake Crystal.

Black and Veatch, Mankato’s sewer plant consultant, has been asked to complete a more detailed status report later this month for the city and its regional partners