Still on the table this legislative session: Bonding for clean water and our river corridor

by Trevor Russell

Legislators and the governor must still come to an agreement on a 2020 bonding bill before their May 18th adjournment. (Photo in the public domain.)

In January, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan proposed an ambitious $2 billion bonding package including $300 million for water quality and infrastructure projects to will help cities and other local governments construct wastewater and drinking water projects.

We were pleased to see that their bonding package also included funding for the River Learning Center, but not First Avenue's private concert venue on public land in North Minneapolis.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the legislative session dramatically since then.

However, a robust bonding package is expected to constitute most (if not all) of the non-COVID-19 focus during the remaining 2020 legislative session.

Here’s a look at what to expect for FMR's top priorities: funding for clean water and the River Learning Center but not for the private concert venue at the Upper Harbor Terminal.

The “Big Six” water items

The governor’s proposal includes a variety of projects, with a focus on six big-ticket items that help cities with costly upgrades to water systems needed to clean pollutants from their water without causing soaring utility bills.

FMR strongly supports these water infrastructure investments, and we expect all six to be fully funded in any final agreement: 

  • Wastewater Infrastructure Fund: $100 million
    Provides supplemental assistance grants to municipalities for high-cost clean water and drinking water infrastructure projects that address existing environmental or public health problems. Wastewater Infrastructure Fund funds are used to supplement either low-interest loans from the Clean Water Revolving Fund or to match grant and loan funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program.
  • Point Source Implementation Grants: $75 million.
    Point Source Implementation Grants help local governments build wastewater, stormwater and drinking water treatment projects when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determines that higher levels of treatment are necessary to meet water quality goals. Funding is allocated on a competitive basis and provides grants of up to half of eligible costs, with a local match required.
  • Water Infrastructure Initiative: $25 million
    This money will increase the lending capacity of the clean water and drinking water revolving funds. State and federal funds are used together with loan repayments and PFA revenue bonds to provide low-interest loans to local governments for clean water infrastructure, which includes wastewater, stormwater and drinking water projects. Eligible projects are prioritized based on environmental and public health criteria.
  • Municipal climate resiliency: $15 million
    Grants to municipalities to build sustainable and resilient stormwater infrastructure with a focus on projects that demonstrate a connection to local climate goals, improving water quality or minimizing the risks from extreme weather events.
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: $16.5 million
    The Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) funds permanent conservation easements in ecologically sensitive areas, which will help improve water quality and wildlife habitat. This funding will secure an additional $33 million in federal funds.
    Funding this program through bonding is especially important this year, as the Clean Water Fund (which has recently been tapped to backfill shortfalls in CREP bonding) may fail to meet revenue projects this year due to COVID-19-related sales tax declines.
  • Minneapolis Central City Storm Tunnel: $19 million
    This funding, matched by the City of Minneapolis, will used to replace the existing 90-year old sandstone stormwater tunnel system deep beneath the city, adding capacity and reducing the risk of tunnel failure and the potential for sewage overflows into the river.

Other environmental investments

The governor’s water infrastructure recommendations also include a number of smaller projects, including Superfund cleanups, PAH contamination removal, wetland restoration, riverbank stabilization and other local and regional investments. A complete list of water infrastructure investments can be found here.

A separate set of “quality of life” bonding proposals includes funding for a variety of state and local projects that include land protection, habitat restoration, outdoor recreation and other environment-related investments. 

River corridor projects: The good and the bad

These two proposed projects are still in play. Both have big implications for the Mississippi River corridor.

  • (Good) The River Learning Center: $3 million
    The River Learning Center — which the governor did include in his proposal — will be home to the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area headquarters and offer year-round river-oriented experiences focused on the land, water and culture of the river, enhancing public connections to this incredible natural resource that we need now more than ever. (Act now to show your support!)
     
  • (Bad) A private concert venue on public land: $20 million
    The Upper Harbor Terminal concert venue was thankfully not included in the governor’s proposal but remains in discussions at the Legislature. The proposal, which FMR strongly opposes, would use land currently in public ownership to build a privately-operated concert venue adjacent to the river in North Minneapolis. As the session goes on, this proposal looks more and more out of step with the public interest.

Some other bonding proposals for riverfront parks and public spaces are also under consideration, including some positive proposals from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The House and Senate

Unlike other bills, bonding bills must pass with at least a 60% majority in both chambers. As a result, negotiations are heavily influenced by the political realities in both chambers, which currently have diverging views on public investments.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa), originally expressed support for a bonding bill under $1 billion — less than half of what the governor proposed. However, in response to COVID-19 concerns, he has more recently mentioned that funding numbers could go as high as $1.8 billion in bonding.

On the House side, while leadership hasn’t offered a specific number, House Capital Investment Committee Chair Mary Murphy (D-Hermantown) has openly called for a bonding bill in the $3.5 billion range.

Looking forward

Reconciling the differences in the House, Senate and governor’s positions will be a focus of the Legislature’s non-COVID-19 work between now and the constitutionally required May 18th adjournment.

We anticipate a final package in the $1.8-$2.5 billion range, and are hopeful that bipartisan legislators in both chambers will support Gov. Tim Walz’s much-needed investments in Minnesota's water infrastructure and natural resources.

Become a River Guardian! 

At FMR, we count on our network of River Guardians to take action to support and strengthen environmental protections for our great river. Sign up to be a River Guardian and we'll be in touch when you can act to support clean water and our river corridor this legislative session.

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