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Cities struggle with aging sewer systems

ST. PAUL -- While most Minnesotans don't need to think about what happens after they leave the powder room, there are many in Minnesota for whom sewage is a growing worry.

ST. PAUL -- While most Minnesotans don't need to think about what happens after they leave the powder room, there are many in Minnesota for whom sewage is a growing worry.

Many small communities have outdated sewage systems that need replacing. But the high cost of such a project is delaying improvements. Many of these outdated systems are "living on borrowed time," as one analyst put it.

"There's definitely a sense of urgency," said Craig Johnson of the League of Minnesota Cities. "We have a backlog of wastewater needs over $3 billion in the state."

Most of the state's rural wastewater systems were built as part of the Works Project Administration in the 1930s and 1940s with a life span of about 50 years. Today, many of these systems are in danger of leaking, and creating environmental damage.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports that about 10 percent of the communities surveyed had antiquated systems where waste is discharged directly into rivers and streams through "straight pipes."

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Johnson said while many cities set utility fees high enough to save money in anticipation of upgrading their systems 10 or 20 years down the road, those revenues are outpaced by other economic considerations, and cities are not keeping up.

"Between the rising costs of construction, and fuel, and then add on that communities have no idea what kind of environmental requirements there will be 30 years from now, utility fees are never adequate" to fully fund needed improvements, Johnson said.

Traditional sewage treatment technologies are expensive. City systems cost tens of millions of dollars.

Nonetheless, Nancy Straw of the West Central Initiative, a Fergus Falls-based community foundation, said small towns cannot afford to wait until disaster strikes.

"Our biggest concern is the small communities where the incomes are lower," Straw said. "But if you have an aging system, and suddenly can't flush the toilet, your house is worth zero. It leaves families vulnerable."

Many state lawmakers are aware of the dilemma and support the state taking on more of the expense to upgrade aging systems, particularly for low-income communities.

"We should be helping people who can't help themselves who have limited means," said Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport.

The Legislature's public works proposal includes $15.3 million for the Wastewater Infrastructure Fund, which provides grants to communities. Heidgerken said the amount going to the fund should be many times bigger.

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Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, agrees, but, he added, "the state is not able to provide the lions' share for these projects."

Lanning said he wants further research of the problems, and for the Legislature to re-evaluate criteria for awarding state grant money.

"To expand the amount available before doing the work needed isn't the best investment, either," Lanning said.

Legislators also allocated $30 million in the bonding proposal for a loan fund where cities can borrow money for sewer projects. While state loans are welcome, repaying the loans comes out of the wallets of a small pool of local, mainly elderly residents.

"We're seeing communities that are putting water and sewer bills on their residents that are astronomical," said Rep. Dean Simpson, R-Perham. "We're seeing, $40, $50, $60 a month for basic water and sewer bills. It's definitely an issue that has to be addressed as we move forward."

New York Mills is spending $4 million on a new system for a city of 1,200 people. Though the city received a small state grant, it borrowed most of the money. It will pay back the $4 million state loan by doubling fees and usage charges.

For New York Mills, the investment is worth it. City Clerk Darla Berry said the new system is larger than its predecessor and will allow the city to grow and attract businesses and more residents.

Many, including the League of Minnesota Cities' Johnson, hope future legislative sessions will include bigger investments in sewage infrastructure.

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"This bonding bill is a good bonding bill, but it is nowhere near great," Johnson said about a bill lawmakers passed, but the governor opposed. "A lot of wastewater needs are very urgent and won't get funded with this amount of money."

Marisa Helms works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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