Pipeline to nowhere in southwest Minnesota?

For Minnesota, the Lewis & Clark water project could become a pipeline to nowhere.

Federal funding for the massive water delivery system has been cut back sharply. Cities, water utilities and other project participants are scrambling to find construction funds elsewhere.

Right now some members in South Dakota and Iowa are getting drinking water, but the project has only just barely made it into Minnesota. And no major customers in the state so far have been able to hook up.

Lewis & Clark taps the Missouri River in South Dakota for supplies, and is supposed to send the water to 20 members in the three state area. About half are getting water now, including the largest member, Sioux Falls, S.D.

But it’s been several years of disappointment for the Minnesota participants — the cities of Luverne and Worthington, plus Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and Rock County Rural Water.

There’ll be an important decision next Thursday that could provide more funding.

Lewis and Clark board members will vote, in essence, on whether to bill themselves for the next leg of the water project. That phase would complete the line to Luverne. Each member would pay a proportional share of the roughly $20 million project, with a promise that if federal funding resumes, that money will be used to reimburse members for a yes vote on Thursday.

But the proposal faces strong headwinds.  “It’s a very divisive issue,” said Lewis & Clark executive director Troy Larson

The largest member, Sioux Falls, says it will vote no. Sioux Falls city engineer Chad Huwe says the reason is simple. “We have fulfilled our financial commitment to Lewis and Clark.” Sioux Falls receives roughly 10 million gallons of water a day from the system.

Officials in Sheldon, Iowa also plan to vote no. They say it’s too early to take this self-funding step.

Minnesota and Iowa have been asked to contribute money to the project. Sheldon officials say Lewis and Clark members should wait until the fate of those requests is decided before proceeding.

Plus, they say federal money could still come through.

Meanwhile, southwest Minnesota officials are eager for the new water source. Recent droughts have pressured water supplies in the region. Some economic development projects have been turned down because there’s not enough water to supply their needs. As of right now, the Lewis and Clark main pipeline extends to Rock Rapids, Iowa, near the Minnesota border.

That pipeline was not supposed to cross the state line, but there was extra pipe on hand so the construction crew kept building until they ran out. That resulted in the pipeline extending 427 feet into Minnesota. That’s a start, but it’s still miles away from the promised goal of adequate water for all Lewis & Clark members.