Upgrading Minnesota water systems: Vital to our health, a boost to our economy

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

The Minnesota Legislature has been working aggressively over the past few weeks to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and its harsh impacts on our state’s communities. Throughout the rest of the spring (or summer, if a special session is called), they will have to contend with tough questions about the effects of this health crisis on people, budgets, and the economy of Minnesota, and how to effectively respond to all three. One powerful tool at their disposal will be the use of bonding – our state’s ability to borrow funds inexpensively over a longer term to make capital investments, especially infrastructure.

Earlier this year, Governor Walz proposed a $2 billion bonding package that included $300 million for water infrastructure. These dollars would be an excellent long-term investment in Minnesota’s future and would help the overall economic response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Here’s why water bonding is a great investment in Minnesota:

1. It’s sorely needed

Even in the land of 10,000 lakes, thousands of Minnesotans face a long-growing crisis of contaminated drinking water. Residents of St. Paul, Minneapolis, Duluth, and other older communities suffer the harmful effects of lead poisoning from aging pipes. Nitrate contamination has created problems for cities like Hastings, Cold Spring, and Fairmont. In other places, like Bemidji, “forever chemicals” like PFAS substances have forced communities to shut down wells that previously provided water to residents. 

To make matters worse, in many cities, water treatment and transport systems are many decades old and deteriorating. Fixes are prohibitively expensive for many communities, especially small ones, to cover individually.

At the same time, river flooding has worsened in the face of climate change. Communities in the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys face high-cresting rivers and storm surges that threaten homes and businesses. New infrastructure can’t change rain or snowfall patterns, but it can make the impact lighter by allowing water to be better drained and absorbed. Upgrades are sorely needed as part of climate adaptation.

2. It would boost our economy

Like the rest of the world, Minnesota will likely be facing a severe economic crisis due to COVID-19. Once the worst of the pandemic has passed, our economy will need major stimulus in order to reverse job losses. Water infrastructure investment can play a vital positive role in this stimulus. These are shovel-ready projects that will support jobs in construction, engineering, manufacturing, and other fields, while improving the quality of life of the communities they serve.

In the long-term, clean water and flood prevention help prevent costs that drag down local economies. Clean drinking water and surface waters means healthier residents and lower medical costs. Every flood averted represents dollars that residents, businesses, and municipalities don’t have to spend to restore what was lost to rising waters.

3. We can pay for it

Minnesota political leaders have signaled their intention to pass a major bonding bill. This would allow the state to borrow money at negligible interest rates for infrastructure and other projects. These “general obligation” bonds won’t strain Minnesota’s overall state budget, because they’re paid off over the long-term, enabling them to be used to help bring about an economic recovery.

How we can get it done

During this challenging time, traditional avenues of lobbying are changing or temporarily suspended, but our advocacy continues, and the voices of Minnesotans still make a difference!

In the coming weeks, look for updates and opportunities to express your support for a major capital investment bill in the Minnesota Legislature. Now’s the time for smart investments that will benefit us all in the future.

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