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Who will pay for clean water?

It's difficult to argue against measures that protect the environment. Everyone wants clean lakes and clean groundwater.

Until the cost sinks in, followed by the realization that someone has to pay for those protections — cities, counties, the state, federal government, and ultimately, taxpayers.

This raises big questions: How much will it cost? Are the protections worth it? Will they actually help? If so, who will pay for it?

State and city leaders across Minnesota — along with residents and businesses — should be weighing those questions with a new sense of urgency in light of a new report from the Minnesota Management and Budget. It found that hundreds of millions of dollars will be required every year over the next 20 years for cities to upgrade and operate their wastewater and stormwater infrastructure to meet more stringent regulations imposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The 494-page report indicates that the expense of meeting current and future regulations could force many cities to more than double their user fees — making such fees unaffordable based on state criteria. It also raises doubts about whether existing state funding efforts are sufficient to meet statewide needs.

The report estimates that the cost for cities to comply with current and future stormwater requirements is more than $7.9 billion over the next 25 years. An analysis showed that the capital costs for the 15 cities examined for the study will exceed $400 million.

While the study did not specifically examine any cities in Douglas County — the closest locations were Starbuck and Hancock — it underscores the tremendous cost burdens faced by cities that are struggling to adhere to new environmental regulations. The Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District, for example, estimated months ago that it would cost roughly $10 million to meet the state's stricter phosphorous discharge levels recommended for Lake Winona.

The looming financial strain is not something that struck out of the blue.

"This report demonstrates what many wastewater professionals have known for years — that Minnesota communities are facing a crisis when it comes to being able to afford to pay for clean water infrastructure," said Andy Bradshaw, wastewater/stormwater services operations manager in Moorhead in a news release accompanying the report.

Bradshaw also serves as president of the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, a joint powers organization that consists of 44 local governments — including the Alexandria sanitary district. It works to ensure that regulations affecting municipal wastewater are scientifically sound, have reasonable cost-effective implementation methods and produce measurable benefits to water quality.

Bradshaw said his organization supports additional investments that lead to cleaner water, but communities in Greater Minnesota are already facing an uphill battle when it comes to meeting the costs to comply with more stringent pollution control agency regulations.

Another sobering reality: The report does not include the estimated costs associated with addressing the current crisis of aging wastewater, drinking water and sewer infrastructure throughout Minnesota.

The study, Bradshaw said, sheds light on two key issues. "One, cities and their ratepayers cannot bear these high costs alone and need more financial help from the state," he said. "Two, it is absolutely vital that any new regulations imposed on wastewater treatment facilities are truly necessary and beneficial to the environment."

At the very least, the new report should spur serious conversations about regulations, infrastructure costs and establishing a comprehensive approach to water quality challenges in Minnesota.

"We all want and need clean water." Bradshaw said. "Cities in Greater Minnesota have invested billions in water quality efforts and we will continue to do so, but we have to recognize that Minnesotans have limited resources to address environmental problems, let alone other important issues like education, health care and public safety."

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