The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 2, 2013

Is Lewis & Clark project a pipeline to nowhere?

Water dries up as does federal funding for southwest Minnesota

By Mark Steil
Minnesota Public Radio News

---- — The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was supposed to supply millions of gallons of badly needed water to southwest Minnesota. Instead, it's Minnesota’s pipeline to nowhere.

More than 100 miles of pipe have been laid in South Dakota and Iowa. But not a drop of water has crossed into Minnesota.

The stalled project is causing problems for communities and rural water supply systems that trusted Lewis & Clark water would be flowing from household faucets by now. More than two years of on-and-off drought have stretched existing water supplies and led to watering bans and other restrictions.

The line "kind of just ends in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of that field," said Red Arndt as he walked farmland recently on the Minnesota-Iowa border. Arndt lives in southwest Minnesota and has been involved with planning and building the project for more than 20 years. He currently chairs the Lewis & Clark board.

The pipeline extends a little into Minnesota, but only by about 400 feet, said Arndt, as he stood near steel pipes sticking out of a slab of concrete, the junction where water is supposed to be directed from northwest Iowa into Minnesota.

It ends in this useless location because there's no money to lay more. Construction stopped after Congress failed to deliver promised funding.

Lewis & Clark is supplying water to some South Dakota and Iowa communities. It draws water from the Missouri River in South Dakota, treats it and then pipes the water north and east. It still gets a little federal money, but only enough to maintain what's already operating. Arndt said he's not optimistic Congress will send more funds anytime soon.

Local officials say that's a threat to the region’s economic development.

Luverne has spent about $400,000 developing water supplies to make up for the Lewis & Clark shortfall. If the project lies dormant into next summer, the city will spend another $1 million, mainly to dig new wells and process the water, said city administrator John Call.

"We know we can probably get some more water out of our south well field," he said. "It's money we didn't really want to spend, but at least we're doing something."

The cost of digging new wells is especially frustrating because the city has already paid nearly $2 million to Lewis & Clark for water that never arrived.

The Minnesota cities and water supply systems that are members of Lewis & Clark are now looking to the state Legislature for construction money. They hope to get some in next year's bonding bill.

"The states are having to pick up what the federal government initially committed to do," said Gerald Galloway, an engineering professor at the University of Maryland. State officials, he added, hope they can recapture some of the money later on if the federal government comes back.

Lewis & Clark is not the only stalled project, Galloway said. The same pattern is seen in plans as diverse as restoring the Everglades to building more waste water treatment plants.

For Lewis & Clark supporters, that's not good news. They need about $70 million to finish the project but the work can only begin if there's a thaw in the funding process and the money starts to flow again.