Despite Funding Woes, L&C Water On Track

VERMILLION — Ben Bjordal can cross another item off his bucket list.

The Centerville city councilman joined more than 100 other officials from a three-state area for Thursday's bus tour of Lewis and Clark Regional Water System. The delegation represented 20 member communities and water systems, along with congressional staff members from South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

During the day, the delegation visited four construction projects. They started with the 85th Street water tower in Sioux Falls and then the Tea reservoirs and pump station. The tour proceeded to the water treatment plant north of Vermillion and the well facilities north of the Vermillion-Newcastle bridge.

Most people wouldn't consider it an adventurous road trip. However, Bjordal witnessed something he thought he would never see.

"I am amazed to see how much this (project) has progressed. I have been on the Lewis and Clark board since 1994, and it's nice to see how far it has come," he said.

"I said I wanted to see this (water system) before I die. I was 59 at the time, and now I'm 74. I didn't think I would live long enough to see it."

The tour provided a rare opportunity, according to Lewis and Clark executive director Troy Larson.

"Never again will there be so much construction going on at one time," he said. "You won't have the opportunity to see all four projects next year. They will still be working on the treatment plant, but the others will be done."

Federal funding for the project has lagged behind schedule, Larson said. The federal government funds 80 percent of the project, while the states and member systems each provide 10 percent.

"We need $35 million a year (in federal funds), but the most we have ever received was $27 million in 2009," he said. "We are running two years behind schedule on the project."

Lewis and Clark has been able to move forward because its members paid their share upfront. In addition, the project received $56.5 million in federal stimulus funds last year.

The stimulus funding carried some drawbacks, Larson said.

"Because we received the $56.5 million from the stimulus, Congress only approved another $10 million (in annual appropriations)," he said. "Now, the 2011 bill doesn't go back to where we were funded in 2009. They are using last year as the starting point and cutting from there."

For 2011, the House has budgeted $5 million for the project and the Senate has budgeted $10 million, Larson said.

"Either way, it's not meeting our needed funding level," he said. "If you are looking at $5-10 million, I am guessing we will end up with $7.5 million."

Even if Lewis and Clark received $10 million annually in federal funds, the outlying communities wouldn't receive water for two to three decades, Larson said. Worthington, Minn., wouldn't receive water until 2030, while Madison would wait until 2035 and Sibley, Iowa, until 2037.

"We have the money to cover the construction under way," he said. "But without the proper additional funding, it could halt new construction."

However, Lewis and Clark water plant superintendent Jim Auen doesn't think member communities will need to wait up to 30 years for water. He remains committed to keeping the project moving forward.

"That (lengthy delay) would just be unacceptable. If we only get $10 million a year, we have to go after more money," he said. "We will continue construction with the money as it becomes available."

The project covers a massive area of 5,000 square miles, Auen said.

"We will have 300,000 customers and serve an area the size of Connecticut," he said. "We have laid 90 miles of pipeline so far. When completed, we will have 337 miles of pipeline with a transmission line to Sioux Falls."

Centerville, along with Beresford and Parker, are among the first 10 Lewis and Clark members that will receive water by 2012, Larson said. However, those 10 members will pay higher water rates because of the higher costs for operating the treatment plant.

"The first 10 are happy to be hooked up, even if they are paying higher water rates," he said. "Sioux Falls is also among the first 10 but can't take all of its water until all 20 members are hooked up."

The stimulus funding ensured completion of the Vermillion treatment plant in the next two years, said Dennis Micko, the resident project manager for Banner Associates, Inc.

"With the stimulus funding, we got caught up on two of the four years we were behind on the entire project," he said.

Work continued moving forward on the treatment plant, even amidst Thursday's muddy conditions after an overnight rainfall.

About 100 workers are employed on constructing the treatment plant that will use 34,000 cubic yards of cast concrete. The pump station used 10,000 cubic yards of cast concrete. A cubic yard of concrete weighs 4,000 pounds.

Initially, the plant will treat and soften 35 million gallons of water per day, eventually reaching 60 million gallons daily, Micko said.

The benefits will be immeasurable, Auen said.

"We are providing a reliable, dependable, high-quality water supply for 20 members on the system long into the future," he said. "Each member is extremely important to Lewis and Clark. Each one has unique circumstances. For some it's water quality issues. For others, it's expensive to meet federal regulations."

Centerville falls into both categories, Bjordal said.

"We receive our water from the Vermillion aquifer, but the water is so hard with high levels of manganese and iron," he said. "When I was mayor, we had two or three housewives who came in every Monday morning complaining because their laundry had turned orange from the water."

Bjordal noted that 50 to 75 irrigation systems also tap into the aquifer. He expressed concern that fertilizer could run into the aquifer, particularly with this year's flooding.

Besides worrying about water quality, small towns find difficulty complying with complex federal regulations for water systems, Bjordal said.

"They set up these standards for cities like Chicago, not for smaller communities like Centerville with our 930 people. We aren't taken into consideration," he said. "The federal government is very specific, and we have to test for so many things."

Centerville operates iron pipes dating back to 1889, with some stretches of the pipeline flaking with loose rust, he said. The water tower was also built in 1889, with the roof added in 1942.

Centerville signed up for 120,000 gallons per day with the Lewis and Clark system, which should meet the town's peak needs, Bjordal said.

"We are ready for Lewis and Clark. We put in a new filter system and new pipeline," he said. "In the next few days, we will bid on the meter house, and construction will start this fall."

Bjordal is pleased that rural communities were included in the Lewis and Clark system rather than strictly targeting Sioux Falls. "Little towns in rural areas can't afford it by themselves. By coming together, we can afford it," he said.

Thursday's tour concluded at the well fields, viewing the bank stabilization project that garnered Lewis and Clark a conservation award as environmentally friendly.

The system will add four wells for a total of 11, providing 30 million gallons a day, Auen said. Eventually, the project needs 17 to 19 wells.

The Lewis and Clark project has proven economically as well as environmentally friendly, Auen said.

"This is the apex of construction. Lewis and Clark has over $140 million of infrastructure in Clay County, in terms of wells, pipeline and treatment plant," he said.

"Every day, more than 100 workers are employed at the site, and work is ongoing at the well fields, too. These employees live and shop in Vermillion and surrounding communities."

When completed, the treatment plant will initially employ 15 full-time workers and eventually increase to 25, Auen said. "These are good quality, high-paying jobs employing highly skilled people," he said.

Lewis and Clark will leave a legacy felt nationwide, Micko said.

"The benefit of this project is that we represent three states," he said. "It's almost unheard of and sets a precedent for regional water systems."

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