Johnson hopeful fed money will flow to Lewis & Clark water system

Sen. Tim Johnson and Troy Larson, executive director of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, field questions from media in the foyer of the system’s new water plant north of Vermillion Monday.

(Photo by David Lias)

Jim Auen, operations manager of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System (right) describes the workings of the system’s water plant to Sen. Tim Johnson as they toured the facility Monday.

(Photo by David Lias)

By Travis Gulbrandson

Sen. Tim Johnson was in Vermillion Monday to get a first-hand look at the progress of a long-term project.

The senator visited the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System Treatment Plant that morning, where he discussed both the progress and the future funding of the overall Lewis & Clark project. The plant is located approximately three miles north of Vermillion.

"It's good to see $56.5 million being put to good use," Johnson said. "We have a long way to go on the entire Lewis & Clark project, but we're more than halfway there in the number of communities served."

The mission of the project is to develop and operate a high-quality three-state water supply system to meet the growing needs of the region.

Approximately $4.5 million is already set aside in the president's budget for next year, Johnson said.

The majority of future funding may be acquired through SB 3385, the Authorized Rural Water Projects Completion Act, a bipartisan effort sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT).

"It's a bipartisan bill, and we'll see where it comes out, but they need more money quickly," Johnson said. "Without earmarks, that is a hard goal, but we'll see what happens."

"If passed, it would include $80 million a year for the seven rural water projects currently on the Bureau of Reclamation's plate," said Troy Larson, executive director of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System. "Once the projects are finished, this funding sunsets, so it's not a new program, it's simply a way to complete these projects in a more timely manner."

Larson added that Johnson has worked to secure approximately $15 million in unallocated funds "that hopefully will be held in the final budget bill," out of which the Lewis & Clark project would get a share.

"That's sort of the trickle-down appropriation approach that's in place because of the earmark ban, which unfortunately includes authorized projects," Larson said. "We've advocated long and hard that an authorized project like Lewis & Clark should not be included in the earmark ban, so we thank the senator for his efforts."

Johnson said he did not know if funding would be affected by the outcome of this year's election.

"We'll wait and see what happens," he said. "I don't know what the position of Mitt Romney is on Lewis & Clark, but the merits I assume will win out."

The senator said overall progress with the project is heartening.

"Ten of the 11 communities in South Dakota (are being served) already," he said.

"Madison is the only underserved community left. The rest are in Iowa and Minnesota."

The Vermillion plant was operational as of July 30, 2012, and had its official ribbon-cutting Aug. 21, a ceremony Johnson was unable to attend.

"What's happening today is a belated opportunity for the senator to see everything that has taken place with the funding that we've received," Larson said.

Larson went on to thank Johnson for his efforts to see the project through to completion.

"Sen. Johnson through the years has been a champion of this project to say the least," he said. "He has been involved with it since day one, and advocated for it in every which way he possibly could."

On entering the main building, Johnson declared he was "impressed already."

"I noticed the mural on both sides of the building that depicts Lewis and Clark overlooking Spirit Mound," he said. "That is appropriate."

The senator also took time out during his brief Q&A with the media to remember former Sen. George McGovern, who died Sunday.

In particular Johnson said he admired McGovern's efforts toward peace and his efforts to feed the hungry, in which he was joined by former Sen. Bob Dole.

"I have fond memories (of McGovern), and I've been inspired as so many others are by his service to the public," Johnson said.

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