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Midwest’s Lewis & Clark water system needs Obama and Congress to deliver

Courtesy of Lewis & Clark Regional Water System
The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in July of 2000 and broke ground a few years later.

Don’t look now, but Congress actually did something right, something its members deserve credit for.

Troy Larson

For once, Congress followed through on a promise.

With all the talk of helping local economies and people “outside of Washington,” Congress recently restored over $27 million of $29 million in misguided budget cuts to the construction of six authorized rural water projects, including a critical water-system project serving Minnesota and the neighboring states of Iowa and South Dakota.

This move by Congress elicits a bigger question, though, about Washington and its commitments to states like Minnesota and our neighbors: Is this progress made by Congress just another case of only one part of Washington showing signs of action, or will President Obama make good on his State of the Union promise to work together with Congress?

It’s a gesture that could very well give people a glimmer of optimism that Washington is finally starting to change its ways.

President Obama and Congress often sing from the same song sheet when it comes to the political rhetoric of “investing in infrastructure” and “rebuilding our economy.” But in Minnesota and the surrounding area, infrastructure investments are a critical part of maintaining the circulatory system of commerce throughout the Midwest region. Roads, energy grids and water systems sustain our local businesses, both big and small.

Critical infrastructure

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is the embodiment of critical infrastructure. Created by 20 local members consisting of 15 cities and five rural water systems in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota, the goal of Lewis & Clark was to plan ahead of a looming water shortage for the region and address water needs in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

Advanced planning and a pursuit of government efficiency is rare, but welcome. After a great deal of public input and vetting, the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in July of 2000. The project broke ground, progressed though construction phases and began delivering water to 11 of its 20 members in July 2012, with Minnesota scheduled to begin receiving water at one of its connection points in late 2014.

Unfortunately the Lewis & Clark system is only 65 percent complete, its progress stalled because of the federal government’s failure to follow through with its end of the funding agreement. Pipeline construction, engineering and easement acquisition have all come to a complete stop. The hundreds of millions of dollars already invested by local and state taxpayers is at risk of being wasted if the project were to remain incomplete and idled.

Obama’s failure to deliver

So, where is the disconnect? Well, while Congress and state leaders like Gov. Mark Dayton have delivered the investment required to sustain it, President Obama has declined to fulfill the federal government’s promised commitment of funds to the project — a glaring disappointment and crucial missing link to completion.

Obama unfortunately removed $29 million for rural water construction from his proposed FY14 Budget, leaving behind only $22 million for construction of six authorized rural water projects that have a combined remaining federal cost share of $1.2 billion. Failing to deliver on the federal government’s obligation, while states and localities have lived up to their obligation, is as shocking as it is disappointing.

Gov. Dayton, however, has made a clear commitment to supporting this key economic infrastructure. Perhaps emblematic of the great divide between governors focused on solving problems and presidents who only talk about them, Dayton proposed over $20 million for the Lewis & Clark water system in his most recent bonding proposal — enough to extend critical water resource infrastructure to the city of Luverne in southwestern Minnesota.

The divide between state governments and the federal government can be bridged. Congress and the president have a chance to claim a bipartisan victory and deliver to the people of Minnesota and neighboring states.

Obama is slated to deliver a budget to Congress in March that is a reflection of his priorities, particularly as it relates to following through on a promise to invest in projects critical to fostering economic growth. Families, employers, school systems and hospitals that will benefit from the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System are counting on the federal government to fulfill a commitment to Minnesota and neighboring states.

The opportunity for Washington to change some minds by living up to its word, confronting a major challenge and solving it is there. Will President Obama seize it?

Troy Larson is executive director of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System.

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