Groundbreaking held for Lewis and Clark water system

Groundbreaking held for Lewis and Clark water system Johnson by David Lias U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson made a fitting comparison last Thursday when he spoke at groundbreaking ceremonies for the Lewis and Clark rural water project.

"Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River," he said. "Today, we address a vital need by moving to bring reliable, high-quality drinking water to the area. In doing so, we make good on the goal of continued growth throughout the region."

Johnson joined a number of state and federal officials, including Troy Larson, executive director of the water project, Charlie Kuehl, the project's board chairman and Gov. Mike Rounds. They addressed approximately 150 people near the banks of the Missouri River at Clay County Park southwest of Vermillion.

When complete, the Lewis and Clark rural water system will provide drinking water to 200,000 residents in 22 communities across South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

The pipeline was conceived in 1989 in response to need to a find a more dependable and better quality source of drinking water for the tri-state region.

An engineering feasibility report was completed in 1993. That report serves as the basis for federal legislation authorizing funding for the project that was signed into law in July 2000.

Progressing to the point where a celebration could be held, complete with a groundbreaking ceremony, was no easy task, said Kuehl, with graying hair and a wrinkled brow.

"When we started this, I looked like Mel Gibson," he joked.

One of the most recent challenges to the water project was just overcome. Earlier this year, Johnson noted, the White House Office of Management and Budget cut congressional-approved funding for the system.

Members of Congress from South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota worked together, he said, and persuaded the OMB to reverse its decision and release $5.8 million.

For 2004, the Senate has approved $20 million in funding for next year, and the OMB sent a letter to the South Dakota delegation and other congressional leaders supporting at least $18 million for the Lewis and Clark and Perkins County water projects combined.

Larson noted that during Thursday's ceremony, work on a test production well about a half-mile west of the Vermillion-Newcastle bridge was going on. More pipeline installation is scheduled for December and through the winter, he said.

Gov. Mike Rounds said ensuring a water supply for future growth was "true economic development, the purest form of economic development."

Johnson described project's potential impact in terms that everyone in the audience could understand.

He remembers a time before a modern water system benefited rural Clay County. During visits to his brother's home north of Westerville, "we had to count the flushes, count the bathtub uses. The water truck hadn't come yet, and we couldn't run out.

"It is the most significant federal undertaking in eastern South Dakota since the interstate highway," he said. "I will continue to work to see that the project receives proper funding to keep construction on schedule, so we can provide water to our rural communities."

Noting that Sioux Falls faces an impending water shortage at the close of this decade, Rounds said, "This was the year it (Lewis & Clark construction) had to start to be online for 2010."

"Providing people with a clean, safe drinking water supply is an issue that transcends political parties, and I am pleased about the bipartisan spirit that was central to the effort," Sen. Tom Daschle said in a written statement read at Thursday's ceremonies. Daschle, and Rep. William Janklow, two of the state's leading proponents of the project, were unable to attend the groundbreaking.

" Our success was due in no small part to the steadfast advocacy of water project officials and community leaders like you, many of whom came to Washington to plead your case in person," Daschle noted. "We also secured an unprecedented commitment from the Administration to retroactively add funding for the Lewis and Clark Rural Water System in its FY2004 budget, and to include additional funds for the project in FY2005."

Janklow was still recovering from injuries after being involved in a car collision Aug. 16 that killed a motorcyclist.

Larson noted that Janklow unique political style was of great benefit to the water project this summer. "Bill, in the way he can, made it abundantly clear this was going to change," Larson said, referring to earlier funding problems.

Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson spoke on his behalf at the groundbreaking.

Munson said he had discussed the groundbreaking with Janklow several weeks ago. "He was proud to be associated with this momentous event,"

The Missouri River provided a dramatic backdrop, and many speakers noted the scene of swirling water and tree-lined bluffs likely hasn't changed much since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first saw it 199 years ago.

"What would they have thought if they had known how the prairie would grow and prosper?" Johnson said.

Kuehl commemorated the long journey that brought rural water project proponents to a groundbreaking by quoting from a letter Clark wrote to Lewis accepting an invitation to join the Corps of Discovery.

"The enterprise and mission is such as I have long anticipated," Kuehl read. "This is an immense undertaking with numerous difficulties, but my friend I can assure you that no man lives with whom I would prefer to undertake and share the difficulties of such a trip than yourself."

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