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Walz targets aging infrastructure, improving water quality with bonding pitch

Jeff Freeman, executive director of the Public Facilities Authority, and Katrina Kessler, an assistant commissioner with the MPCA, gives an overview Feb. 24 of the governor’s water quality and infrastructure bonding recommendations. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko) came to Monday’s House Water Division meeting prepared. Sitting in front of him was a plastic bottle containing what appeared to be a cloudy mixture of lemonade and perhaps dirt.

After listening to Jeff Freeman, executive director of the Public Facilities Authority, lay out projects chosen for funding in Gov. Tim Walz’ $300 million package of water quality and infrastructure bonding recommendations, he asked, “Would you drink that water?”

“No,” Freeman said.

Sundin brought the water to express his disappointment that a certain water project wasn’t included. Freeman said the project has been on a priority list for some time and could still get funding through other avenues.

In total, the governor’s bonding recommendation targets replacing aging infrastructure and upgrades to water treatment facilities.

“Every Minnesotan deserves access to clean, safe water,” Walz said in releasing his plan. “Yet aging infrastructure threatens the safety of our drinking water, the vitality of local communities, and the quality of the lakes and rivers we treasure as Minnesotans. This investment will allow communities across the state to repair infrastructure, prepare for severe weather events, clean up existing water contamination, and upgrade facilities to prevent pollution from happening in the first place.”

The Public Facilities Authority provides financing to cities through low-interest loans and grant programs. Walz recommends $200 million in authority programs:

  • $100 million in water infrastructure funding to provide up to 80% of project costs for high-cost projects;
  • $75 million to help cities upgrade treatment facilities to reduce discharge of pollutants to meet Pollution Control Agency permit requirements; and
  • $25 million in state matching funds to support the Clean Water and Drinking Water Revolving Fund loan programs to make low-interest loans to cities for water infrastructure projects. That would provide the 20% match for federal capitalization grants of up to $125 million.

The governor also proposes $15 million to create a pilot program to help communities handle the effects of weather events intensified by climate change.

Katrina Kessler, PCA assistant commissioner for water policy and agriculture, said between 1951 and 2012, total precipitation in the Twin Cities increased 20%, and the past five years are some of the wettest on record. As the climate changes, rainfall is expected to occur less often, but with more intensity, she said, but much of the state’s stormwater infrastructure is aging and undersized.

Other funding proposals in the governor’s package include:

  • $26.4 million for a local roads wetland replacement program;
  • $16.5 million for the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to acquire permanent easements in ecologically sensitive areas, to help improve water quality and wildlife habitat. The federal government provides a 2:1 match;
  • $5 million in grants to Metropolitan Council municipalities to reduce inflow and infiltration into local and regional wastewater collection systems; and
  • $2 million to remove stormwater pond sediment contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a chemical that can be carcinogenic.

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