Politicians discuss funding for the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System project

By: Ryan McGaughey

WORTHINGTON — Accelerating construction of the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System is a goal shared by many throughout the region, and it brought both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz to Worthington on Monday.

Klobuchar and Walz, who are both seeking re-election to their Washington posts, met privately with members of the LCRWS board and others in the council chambers inside Worthington City Hall.

The meeting was coordinated by Klobuchar in connection with a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for today at the LCRWS water treatment plant near Vermillion, S.D.

“There are still nine communities that are not hooked up,” Klobuchar said after the meeting. “Senator (Max) Baucus, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has a bill I’m co-sponsoring that will jump start the second phase of this project and a couple of others that are in similar situations.”

“We really need to join forces with a couple of other projects to get this moving forward.” she added.

The water system project, which dates back to 1990, was authorized by Congress in 2000 and signed into law with a federal cost share of $270 million. Yet, even though participating entities have already contributed nearly all their cost share of more than $153 million, the designation of Lewis and Clark as an earmark has drastically reduced funding from Washington in recent years.

“At this rate … we’re scheduled to be done in 2070, and that makes no sense to me,” Walz said Monday. “Why are we authorizing other projects when this hasn’t been completed?”

Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh said Monday’s meeting was coordinated in the wake of a February letter he sent to Mike Connor, Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

“The fat cat bureaucrats that halt the funding of this should get out to the communities involved to see firsthand the importance of this project,” Oberloh wrote in the letter. “This project will directly benefit 300,000 people in three states and is supported by our six senators and three representatives.

“If this project was an earmark it would not have the local and state buy in that exists. …. This is not a bridge to nowhere, a hospital wing, or a library with a congressman’s name on it, or anything of the sort. It is purely a much-needed water system to help us survive and grow in the tri-state region of Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota,” Oberloh’s letter added.

The bill Klobuchar is co-authoring, the Authorized Rural Water Projects Completion Act, would provide $80 million per year for 15 years, outside of the annual appropriations process, to complete construction of authorized rural water projects.

“We make a very strong case of how we have an economic situation where we are going to have to be turning away businesses — and have already turned away a business — if we don’t get some water,” Klobuchar said. “We have one of the best cases in the nation (for this).”

Added Oberloh: “At the rate this was going on, we’d be lucky if we see anything come to Worthington by the year 2050. I feel strongly enough that we are being stymied from commercial growth by the lack of having a solid water source.”

A connection to Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water that would boost Worthington’s water supply in lieu of the Lewis and Clark project carries a cost “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Oberloh said. That expenditure would only represent a temporary solution, Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain said.

“Essentially, it’s a band-aid,” Hain said. “We’re kind of piggybacking on a Lincoln-Pipestone band-aid to create a band-aid of our own.”

Eleven communities are currently hooked up to LCRWS, with 10 of those in South Dakota, and the other one of two connections planned in Rock Rapids, Iowa, Hain said.

Walz said he hopes to ultimately help bring forward a bill that would serve as House companion to the bill Klobuchar is co-sponsoring. He said the LCRWS project “has been run smartly” and, regarding the way it was coordinated 12 years ago, was emblematic of “the proper role of state, local and federal government.”

Now, however, federal spending priorities are clearly misguided, he said. For instance, a portion of what the U.S. spends each day in Afghanistan would complete Lewis and Clark.

“If this were argued in court in front of 12 jurors, we’d win this case every time,” Walz said.