Sunday, February 27, 2011

water project shortfall leaves towns high and dry

USAToday | When President Barack Obama's budget came out earlier this month, one thing was clear to Madison Mayor Gene Hexom: His town's wait for high-quality water probably will grow a lot longer.

The president's fiscal 2012 budget included just $493,000 for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, a paltry sum that officials say casts serious doubt on the timeframe for completing the project.

Considering the earmark moratorium that prevents Congress from steering more money toward the project — and the fact that all future construction costs are the responsibility of the federal government — it's a bitter development for officials in towns such as Madison that are scheduled to hook into the pipeline last.

"We realize that we're on the end of the line and it's going to take a few years," Hexom said. "But at this level of funding I'm very pessimistic."

Lewis & Clark will tap wells in the Missouri-Elk Point aquifer, process the water at a plant near Vermillion and pump it through 377 miles of pipe to wholesale customers in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

Of the 20 communities that are part of the project, nine will still be waiting when the treatment plant begins pumping water next summer — a scenario that assumes the project's backers can surmount a $6 million shortfall in this year's budget.

Madison would be the only South Dakota subscriber left out. The others are Sheldon, Sioux Center, Sibley and Hull in Iowa; and Worthington, Luverne, Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System and Rock County Rural Water in Minnesota.

These towns already have paid their share of the project's cost, but when they'll get a taste of the water is anybody's guess.

Troy Larson, the executive director of the Lewis & Clark project, said that even for a project as routinely underfunded as Lewis & Clark has been, the 2012 budget figure is absurdly low. If it stands, it would represent less than half of the organization's administrative budget — to say nothing about construction — and will mean further delays on a half-finished project that already is four years behind schedule.

"It's extremely frustrating for all the members, but particularly those in the outlying areas," Larson said.

"Once we have haves and have-nots, the have-nots are going to want their water as quickly as possible."

Madison will be the second-to-last town to hook into the system. And though Hexom said the town's water needs are basically flat, the city has been cautious with water use, for instance imposing year-round watering restrictions. At current rates of use, the city is in good shape, city engineer Chad Comes said. Still, the lack of additional capacity is keeping industry away.

"Can we take on economic development contracts that need lots of water?" Hexom said. "Probably not."

Another reason Madison chose to tap into the Lewis & Clark pipeline is the city's water quality issues. Madison has hard water, and treatment plant forewoman Connie Silva said she has been looking forward to getting Lewis & Clark water. Not that the city's water is necessarily bad, she said, "but as an operator you always want to do better."

Scott Wynja, the city manager in Sheldon, Iowa, said the shallow aquifer wells from which his town draws its water aren't adequate for a customer base that's growing 1% to 2% annually.

"We're quite concerned," he said. "I don't think people realize what a precious commodity water is."