There's some good news and some bad news.
First the good – the new water treatment plant for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is up and running. The scores of people who have worked tirelessly for decades to help build this needed water project celebrated the completion of this facility at a dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday.
The bad news? Well, the project is not yet complete. And, in fact, no one – not a politician from the three states that the water system serves, not its board of directors, not even Troy Larson, the executive director of the Lewis & Clark project – knows when all of the work will be done.
The biggest obstacle that Lewis & Clark officials must overcome is a shortage of revenue. And we're not talking about twisting arms at the state level, or trying to wrangle dollars from the member communities who are part of the system.
South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa have paid nearly all of what's expected from their state's coffers. So have the cities, towns and rural water systems that need the Missouri River water that's presently being prepared for consumption in the new treatment facility north of Vermillion.
There's nothing new about this funding flux facing the water system.
In July 2011, a bipartisan group of six U.S. Senators and three U.S. Representatives from Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota pressed the Obama Administration to pay its share of the cost of the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System and asked three top federal officials for a meeting to discuss the urgent need to bring adequate water supplies to the region.
Included in that group was South Dakota's entire Congressional delegation. Unfortunately, in the past year, very little has been accomplished to convince Washington officials to pony up the federal funds that have been authorized for the project.
State and local governments in the three states have paid over $150 million – about 99 percent of their share. Lewis & Clark backers say the project will not only provide drinking water to more than 300,000 people in the three states, but also would unleash business expansion and job creation in the region that has been delayed because of inadequate water supplies.
The project is now 66 percent complete, but about $200 million in federal appropriations is still needed to totally complete the water system.
Last summer, everyone's attention in the nation's capital was focused on averting an economic catastrophe when Congress began a big wrestling match over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. An agreement was finally reached by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties last August that called for up to $2.4 trillion in savings over the next decade, raised the debt ceiling through the end of 2012 and established a special congressional committee to recommend long-term fiscal reforms.
With this being election season, it's difficult to expect much more happening this year in Washington. And, in fact, some of the same old issues that caused such a stir a year ago on the federal level are scheduled to reoccur automatically if no progress is made.
It is the "fiscal cliff" that has been mentioned from time to time, and no doubt will receive more and more attention as 2013 nears.
"Fiscal cliff" is the popular shorthand term used to describe the conundrum that the U.S. government will face at the end of 2012. U.S. lawmakers have a choice: they can either let current policy go into effect at the beginning of 2013 – which features a number of tax increases and spending cuts that are expected to weigh heavily on growth and possibly drive the economy back into a recession – or cancel some or all of the scheduled tax increases and spending cuts, which would add to the deficit and increase the odds that the United States could face a crisis similar to that which is occurring in Europe.
The most likely result is another set of stop-gap measures that would delay a more permanent policy change until 2013 or later. The election will almost certainly have an impact on the direction of future policy, particularly if one party earns a decisive victory. Nevertheless, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that if Congress takes the middle ground – extending the Bush-era tax cuts but cancelling the automatic spending cuts – the result, in the short term, would be modest growth with no major economic hit.
In others words, it looks like we can expect more of the same from Washington in the near future. That's not good enough.
And sadly, we find ourselves having to repeat a plea that we made on our editorial page a year ago. We offered a suggestion to President Obama and members of Congress on how they could easily retain a number of existing jobs and increase the employment rate in our region by doing one simple thing.
Adequately fund the Lewis & Clark Water Project.
It's a no brainer. This project has been going on for years now, and workers have made great progress in laying water lines, putting the necessary equipment in place to draw water from the Missouri River and send it to the newly-completed water treatment plant.
For our region to prosper, our communities will need water from the Lewis & Clark system. That means we need action rather than political bickering from our leaders in Washington.
Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem were gracious enough to attend Tuesday's dedication ceremonies of the new water treatment plant. Sen. Tim Johnson could not be present as his wife, Barb, is still recovering from a shoulder injury.
We urge everyone who may happen to see or communicate with Thune, Johnson and Noem this month to tell them to ratchet up the pressure for funding the Lewis & Clark Water Project.
Completing this needed infrastructure here on the Great Plains by doing nothing more than finding the needed funds is a rather simple way to quickly make progress as Congress and the White House turn their focus on jobs and our nation's lagging economy.