BEMIDJI -- State legislators took a walk through Bemidji's wastewater treatment facility Wednesday, and in the process, learned about the plant's needed improvements in the coming years.

The legislators were members of the Minnesota House of Representatives Environment Policy Committee. As part of a northern Minnesota tour, several representatives learned that the facility is nearing capacity.

"We did a study looking at how many residential equivalent units can be added before we have to take action," Facility Superintendent Al Gorick told legislators. "We found that we can't add any without taking action. We'd need a clarifier, so we'd need to add one."

"Unlike some other communities, Bemidji has been in a growth mode with our multi-family units," Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said to the committee. "That's one thing that has a big hit on our wastewater treatment plant. There are more on the docket this year, too. This was constructed for a 50-year life, and we're at 35 years. So, all of a sudden, because of our growth, we're kind of at the life cycle and need to expand it."

Along with needing additional equipment and replacing other pieces of the facility, city officials informed legislators about the possible need to enhance the treatment. As part of the process in obtaining a new permit for the plant, city officials have learned the facility may need to treat for ammonia and nitrogen in the future.

The equipment to be added and replaced at the treatment facility is estimated to cost $13 million. Because of the amount, the city will push for a one-half percent sales tax increase this legislative session to support its water infrastructure.

"We've paid for improvements through rate increases, but this size of an upgrade, you can't raise rates enough to pay for that," Albrecht said. "So, we're looking at the one-half percent sales tax that would provide funding."

District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who chairs the committee, said he was committed to pushing for Bemidji water projects during the legislative session.

"This is the first water treatment plant on the Mississippi River, you know we need to do it better than everybody else," Persell said. "Bemidji, if they're going to build homes or whatever, they're going to need more capacity. Needless to say, I'll be carrying that bill trying to get some bonding money."

On Tuesday, the committee visited the Badoura State Forest Nursery, followed by a public hearing on environmental topics at BSU. Following the tour Wednesday, the committee visited the Leech Lake fish hatchery and the Environmental Protection Agency's superfund site in Cass Lake at the former St. Regis Paper Co. location.