Area leaders are making a plea to lawmakers to consider a proposal from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to invest in infrastructure now in preparation for extreme weather events.
MPCA Laura Bishop, southeastern Minnesota lawmakers and local mayors, including Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, held a public event Tuesday to discuss the need for the Legislature to pass a $2.9 million funding proposal that would help communities prepare for extreme rain events and build climate resilience.
“We recognize that our changing climate, and increasing extreme weather presents new challenges for our towns, cities and counties, and the cost of inaction is simply too high for our communities to bear,” Bishop said.
According to Bishop, the state is becoming warmer and wetter and is seeing more frequent mega-rain events. Southeastern Minnesota communities have experienced these extreme downpours six times in the last 16 years, Bishop said.
Extreme storms are a risk to public health and safety, they damage infrastructure and can result in costly cleanup for families, homes and businesses. Minnesota’s communities are increasingly unprepared for these events. Water infrastructure, including stormwater systems, sewers and wastewater treatment plants, are aging and becoming obsolete. These aging systems can lead to flooded streets, sewers backing up and millions of dollars worth of damage, Bishop said.
“In the last two years alone, southeastern Minnesota experienced 71 of these wastewater overflows, because of increasingly wet weather. And during some of these rain events, basement backups were reported in Dodge, Faribault, Mower, Nicollet and Steele County,” Bishop said.
Kuntz spoke about the city’s experience with its wastewater treatment plant. Owatonna was significantly impacted in 2010, according to Kuntz, when the Straight River overflowed, leading to about $1.6 million in cleanup costs.
“What we have not been able to do yet is find grant money to put a plan together to be able to work with the county, to be able to hold that water back and allow it to be released at a slower area,” Kuntz said.
Additionally Owatonna is in the process of expanding its wastewater treatment plant and is putting together a plan, which costs the city $100,000. Kuntz says it would have been helpful to have a grant available at the time. The expansion project cost for the wastewater treatment plant is $40 million, he said.
“So any dollars that we can find to help offset huge costs of $40 million of a community that’s only 26,000 (residents) would be a great help,” Kuntz said.
The proposed funding would help communities assess their unique needs when it comes to planning and preparing for extreme weather. With the money, counties, cities, townships and tribal governments could assess risks and develop plans to increase climate resilience. The funding would allow the MPCA to help up to 15 communities a year, but demand is likely to be higher.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, for every $1 invested in resilient infrastructure, $6 of benefit accrue to communities by avoiding loss as a result of extreme weather. The proposal is simply a starting point, one which can be used as a framework for larger investments in communities as they adapt to climate change, Bishop said.
The state ranks second in the country for extreme weather events, just behind California. Minnesotans have seen a 366% increase in homeowner insurance rates since 1998, according to Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs at Insurance Federation of Minnesota. In March 1998, southern and southeastern Minnesota were hit with severe tornadoes, causing a great deal of damage. In May another large outbreak of tornadoes occurred, followed by another big storm a few weeks later known as the Southern Great Lakes Derecho of 1998.
“The Southern Great Lakes Derecho, that storm was about $900 million in insured losses in Minnesota and together those three storms that year, led to about $1.5 billion in insured losses, and this is important because that $1.5 billion dollars in insured losses was more than the previous 40 years combined,” Kulda said.
After paying a fine and taking other corrective action, the city of Medford reported that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is officially concluding their investigation regarding the small town’s wastewater treatment plant.
In March, the MPCA fined the city $5,100 and directed the officials and staff to take immediate corrective action to fix the problems that led to two 2020 spills at the city’s plant. During the March city council meeting, Administrative Director of Operations Jed Petersen explained that the fine was “minimal” in comparison to what he was anticipating.
“That [fine] could have been $20,000 per day,” Petersen said in March. “If we don’t do corrective action, they could come back on us and start fining us $20,000 a day until it’s done.”
The city had 30 days to complete all the directives in the MPCA’s order. Petersen said Monday night during the regular city council meeting that the fine has been paid and parts have been ordered to correct the issues in the plant, though there is a bit of a delay in the delivery of the parts due to the pandemic. Petersen said the MPCA has accepted the payment and the actions outlined by the city as the corrective action that needed to take place and said the city will be receiving a formal letter soon stating the investigation is closed.
The fine and order stemmed from an April 2020 overflow that resulted in 40,000 gallons of biosolids being dumped into the Straight River, igniting the initial investigation. On Dec. 28, another 500 gallons of wastewater spilled to the ground of the plant, but none of the biosolids spilled into the river, according to the MPCA.
The MPCA stated the violations included not properly operating and maintaining the facility and system, failing to prevent the unauthorized release of the biosolids into the river and failing to immediately report the December spill.
Corrective action by the city included designing a fine screen that will catch the non-biodegradable material coming through the plant, preventing the system from getting “plugged up” by those materials. Councilor Chad Langeslag, who also serves as the water and wastewater commissioner for the council, said the screen and parts for the clarifier that failed in December have been ordered.
A divisive and sometimes heated debate on the future of Rice County’s jail ended in a stalemate on Tuesday, as Rice County commissioners decided to put off for at least two weeks a final decision on whether to build a new jail or collaborate with Steele County.
The delay will further prolong a years-long saga that began when the Minnesota Department of Corrections threatened to turn Rice County’s Correctional Center into a 90-day facility due to a lack of space and amenities.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn has estimated that this could mean extra expense to the county of close to $1 million per year. Even for Rice County’s Jail to retain its status as a 90-day facility, Dunn said that it would likely require about $44 million in improvements.
As alternatives, the Rice County Board could expand and renovate the Jail and Law Enforcement Center on the site of its current Jail Annex along Highway 60, expand and renovate at the current LEC location downtown, or build a new jail and expand the LEC at its current site.
The new jail and LEC has been the preference of a majority of the County Board and still appears to be. However, Commissioner Galen Malecha has been opposed and at Tuesday’s meeting his colleague Jim Purfeerst expressed hesitance as well.
At Malecha’s behest, the County Board explored the possibility of collaborating with Steele County. Nearly 20 years ago, Steele County built a new jail that now has a capacity far exceeding its needs, with the expectation that it would house inmates from surrounding counties.
Steele County can house close to 150 inmates, but even today Steele County’s own jail study concluded that it only needed about 66 beds. With recent upgrades, County Administrator Scott Golberg said the facility has the staff and capacity needed to accommodate Rice County.
Golberg and Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe attended Rice County’s board meeting Tuesday to talk about their proposal for a possible collaboration. Under a plan approved by the Steele County Board, Rice County would buy into Steele County’s Detention Center in Owatonna for about $7 million and then split costs 50-50.
Though Abbe said he wasn’t there to make a “sales pitch,” the proposal received unanimous backing from Steele County’s Board. Board Chair James Brady called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” when Steele County commissioners met Monday to discuss their proposal to Rice County.
The Department of Corrections is less thrilled, however. Last month, two Department of Corrections officials testified that despite Steele County’s assertions, Owatonna’s Detention Center would not in fact be truly able to accommodate Rice County’s needs.
Sarah Johnson, who works in enforcement and inspections for the DOC, emphasized to the Rice County Board that not all beds are created equal. When taken into a jail, inmates are assessed and classified based on factors such as gender, security risk, and medical and mental health needs.
The Department of Corrections requires an inmate’s classification to match the kind of bed they occupy. Johnson’s DOC colleague Jen Pfiefer said they anticipated that a merged Rice-Steele Detention Center simply wouldn’t have enough special needs beds, for example.
Based in part off of testimony from Johnson and Pfiefer, Rice County Commissioners Jeff Docken, Steve Underdahl and Dave Miller appear set to approve the construction of a new jail at a cost of $49 million, seeing it as a massive expense necessitated by years of falling behind.
“I’m really looking for a long-term solution on this,” Underdahl said. “We haven’t been doing anything to help the jail in recent years.”
Malecha expressed frustration from the get-go, arguing that the county hasn’t been transparent enough with taxpayers or even fully done its homework about the new jail’s significant cost and how it plans to pay for it.
That rankled Docken, who noted that Finance Director Paula O’Connell has estimated the potential impact of the new jail. With a 30-year loan, O’Connell projects the annual costs to taxpayers to come out to about $2.2 million, raising levies on a $250,000 home by about $70.
Malecha raised concerns about the impact of such an increase on taxpayers, and even Purfeerst was lukewarm. He suggested that it might be most appropriate for the county to focus on the jail or to accept Steele County’s offer.
“I hear a lot about (Steele County) coming in at the 11th hour, but I don’t know if we ever really reached out to Steele County on this,” he said.