Wastewater goals shouldn’t run residents from homes

Published 7:47 am Wednesday, August 16, 2017

By Craig Clark

Austin City Administrator

There have been numerous discussions regarding the city of Austin’s pending wastewater permit renewal and the enormous costs associated with increased state regulations that will require upgrades to our treatment plant.

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I hope you have been following the reported updates in various media outlets and conversations before the City Council.  While we all are happy we do not have to concern ourselves with what specifically happens at the treatment plant, we want you to know about the pending costs you will see on your future utility bills.

As we at the city have shared, the new state regulations will translate into expensive new equipment upgrades and will result in increased annual operational expenses. The worst-case estimate from the experts who provided independent data for the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) report was a whopping $77 million for our Austin plant if we had to accommodate both current and proposed regulations.

Many of the other communities who underwent the same analysis also had comparative cost numbers. When you consider a statewide total, the numbers are beyond staggering.

While early indications are that costs for Austin won’t reach the $77 million mark, our 2018 preliminary budget currently under consideration accounts for costs of approximately $37 million going forward. We have had a positive dialogue with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine and other MPCA regulatory staff, and we have made clear that the costs for the pending regulations would see rates increase 145 percent and are untenable.

During the last legislative session, it was critically important that Gov. Mark Dayton was strongly in favor of increasing state bonding dollars for these upgrades. We continue to ask the Legislature to respond to his requests and fully fund the needs of these projects which will require a prolonged partnership from the state of Minnesota.  Put simply, we can’t afford these massive increases on our own.

We continue to have concerns that the heavy financial lift from the state could fall short and funding requests will get only anemic amounts or fall victim to other budget pressures. There should be strong consideration for other methods which can address our water quality challenges.

As a matter of fairness and effectiveness, there should be increased consideration for other solutions where the MPCA can broaden its approach to look at non-point sources rather than what has been a predominant focus of the MPCA on point-source facilities like the Austin treatment plant.

While the city of Austin will continue to be a part of the solution to reach the state’s intended environmental goals, the state should also take a broader approach to addressing this complex problem.

The reality is point-sources like wastewater facilities have long been a part of the solution and increasing standards have always been a part of the permitting process.  However, it’s becoming more difficult to meet the required improvements, and each dollar produces a diminished result when treatment plants have long ago made marked improvements. Real solutions require a broader look and could produce more “bang” for our limited “buck.”

Solutions that target water impairments from non-point sources have to be a part of the mix, especially since data demonstrates a large portion of the pollutants come from them.

We’re hopeful state resources will help us meet these extraordinary costs for Austin residents and appreciate the governor’s push for state funding for wastewater improvements. However, more cost-effective alternatives should be further explored rather than continuing to squeeze cities —especially when it is unclear whether the desired environmental improvements will actually be achieved if cities make these extraordinary upgrades.

At the governor’s recent town hall meeting in Rochester, Stine said we had to do “something.”

We have to know with scientific certainty that “something” will clearly lead to the most cost-effective environmental benefit and not have cities invest massive amounts of resources only to find their objectives fell short while squandering precious limited resources.

We look forward to continued conversations that lead to that “something” being more comprehensive, with everyone participating in a cost-effective and scientifically discernable manner so we all can be confident we’re making headway on the protection of one of our most precious natural resources — water.