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.