The Free Press

MANKATO — A year ago, the costly and overdue modernization of Mankato's regional sewage treatment plant was looking doubtful. The estimated cost had doubled to nearly $90 million. Even if the seven area communities that use and financially support the facility went all in, they could chip in only half that amount.

Since then, the state anted up $42 million. And on Thursday, city officials learned the feds are throwing $3 million more into the pot.

The project now looks like a good bet to be underway later this spring if bids come in near estimates.

“Upgrading critical wastewater infrastructure will boost the health and safety of Mankato and all communities who rely on this system," U.S. Sen. Klobuchar said in a statement announcing the passage of a bill including the local dollars. "With this federal funding, this project is one step closer to completion.”

Klobuchar trumpeted the funding that she and fellow Democratic Sen. Tina Smith sponsored in the Senate, noting in a joint news release that Republican 1st District Congressman Brad Finstad also requested the funding in the House. The funding was part of a $460 billion budget bill that easily passed the House on a bipartisan 339-85 vote.

Despite the inclusion of the $3 million for the Mankato plant and another $8.5 million in infrastructure funding elsewhere in the 1st District, Finstad was one of the 85 "No" votes on the legislation, according to MinnPost.

An attempt by The Free Press to reach Finstad's office for comment went unanswered Thursday afternoon.

Smith stated that the Mankato project, like other wastewater plant investments in the legislation, is essential to community health and environmental protection.

“Reconstructing this wastewater disinfection system will help ensure that these important services can continue for more than 65,000 people in Mankato and the surrounding areas,” Smith said.

The announcement emphasized the project was about more than Mankato, mentioning that other communities benefiting from the upgrade would be Eagle Lake, Madison Lake, North Mankato, Skyline, South Bend Township, the Lake Washington Sanitary District, the cities of Walnut Grove and Granite Falls, and the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

The first seven communities send their waste to the plant on Pine Street along the east bank of the Minnesota River. Because the facility is so efficient at removing phosphorus before the treated wastewater is discharged into the river, the city can sell phosphorus credits to Walnut Grove, Granite Falls and the Lower Sioux Indian Community, along with the ADM ethanol plant in Marshall and a power plant in Granite Falls.

Those communities and industrial facilities also contribute effluent to the Minnesota River watershed, and their ability to purchase the credits from a facility like Mankato's that exceeds pollution control standards for phosphorus relieves them of expensive treatment plant upgrades that would otherwise be required.

But Mankato's aging plant has major components that city staff and consultants worry are on the brink of failure. Relying solely on ratepayers from the seven communities can reasonably generate only about $44.5 million for the renovations and replacement costs, according to Mankato city officials.

Area lawmakers agreed to try to match that $44.5 million with a similar amount of state funding during the 2023 legislative session, but the initial House and Senate bills included only $11.6 million. Although partisan disagreements followed that appeared to put even that amount in doubt, negotiations late in the session boosted the final figure to $35 million. A statewide pollution-prevention fund chipped in another $7 million.

Coupled with some design changes and other cost-control efforts, the available funding was just enough to meet an anticipated new price tag of $86.5 million. The project is set to go out for bids later this month, and the federal appropriation will provide a bit of leeway if the low bid is higher than anticipated.

As recently as Monday night, City Manager Susan Arntz told the City Council that the prospect of any federal dollars remained uncertain. There was a hint that someone working in one of the Minnesota congressional offices — Arntz didn't say which one — was laying the groundwork for providing the money.

"Last week I was asked who would sign the application for the grant," she said, adding that there was no indication of a specific dollar amount.