Water infrastructure costs threaten to cripple rural communities

Below is a guest column by Little Falls City Administrator Jon Radermacher. As of April 30, it has been published in the Brainerd Dispatch, Austin Daily News, Albert Lea Tribune and other Greater Minnesota newspapers.

To paraphrase the famous line, “St. Paul, we have a problem.”

Cities across Minnesota are in the midst of a water infrastructure funding crisis, and with just weeks left in the legislative session, we desperately need our lawmakers at the State Capitol to do something about it.

My community is one of hundreds in the state currently facing massive costs to upgrade our wastewater treatment facility. It will cost the city of Little Falls more than $17 million to upgrade our wastewater plant to replace aging infrastructure and meet stricter discharge limits to comply with new state permit requirements. This amount does not account for annual operating costs or other necessary infrastructure expenses like water and sewer pipes, street maintenance and storm water.

For a community of only 8,689 residents and where the median income is just $37,020, these costs place a tremendous financial burden on our citizens and businesses.

Little Falls is not alone. More than 300 cities in Minnesota currently have plans to undergo water infrastructure projects in the near future. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates it will cost $5 billion over the next 20 years to address municipal wastewater projects, not to mention drinking water and storm water needs which will cost billions more.

While this funding crisis reaches across the state, its impact is felt more acutely in Greater Minnesota, where distance makes it nearly impossible for cities to share resources and facilities like they can in the metro area. The high concentration of residents and businesses also keeps rates down in the metro, where the average monthly residential wastewater rate is less than $23.

Little Falls’ average residential cost is already $38 a month, and even if the city receives an anticipated $7 million state grant, average residential rates will still have to rise to about $51 a month to cover the cost of the plant upgrade. 

When costs are this high, especially in a place where incomes are lower to begin with, it becomes extremely difficult for a small community to retain and attract residents and businesses, much less grow. Our lawmakers need to know that these costs are going to cripple rural communities unless the state steps in with additional financial assistance.

There are two bills in play at the Minnesota Legislature this session that would help address this growing crisis.

The first would put $167 million in state bonding into the existing grant and loan programs administered by the Public Facilities Authority. Gov. Dayton included this proposal in his bonding plan, and many legislators from both parties have voiced support for this funding.

As negotiations over the bonding bill continue, this provision absolutely must be included.

The second bill creates a supplemental grant program to provide additional state funding for communities with prohibitively expensive projects and where residents are already paying significantly higher rates than the metro-area average. Since clean water is both a state and local responsibility, this bill is necessary to set a limit on how much city residents and businesses can reasonably be expected to pay for it.

Minnesota prides itself on having clean water and strict water-quality standards. However, the equipment and technology needed to meet new standards doesn’t come cheap, and right now far too much of the cost burden is falling on our local communities.

This infrastructure crisis already affects many cities, including mine, and it’s not going away any time soon. If our state lawmakers are not worried about it now, just wait until their sticker-shocked constituents come to them to complain about their water bills.

If you live in rural Minnesota and you care about clear water and the livability of your community, contact your legislators and tell them they must pass a bonding bill that funds clean water infrastructure.