Smith visits East Range to Celebrate Joint Water Project; $4M in federal funds secured

From left: U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) talks with Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor, Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum and Mike Larson, community development manager at SEH. (Photo by Leah Ryan/Iron Range Today)

By Leah Ryan/Iron Range Today

It was a mild January morning as U.S. Sen. Tina Smith met with East Range leaders near Giants Ridge. The snow hung heavily on the tree lined road and ice covered Lake Mine Pit, which was the focus of the meeting.

“I think today is a pivotal moment in our project. It is wonderful seeing everything coming together, financially.” said Jodi Knaus, manager/clerk in Town of White, moments before Smith (D-Minn.) arrived. “The engineering is done and we are ready to go out for bids, hopefully, sometime in 2023.”

Knaus went on to say the Joint Water Project is a great project for the East Range region. “This is Phase 1 of a multi-year project. We are very grateful to have legislators and leaders supporting this project.”

Smith attended the Joint Water Project update meeting and celebrated her and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s efforts that secured federal funding for the project. 

“Senator Klobuchar and I worked very closely together on the congressional designated funding that has produced the dollars for this project. And I think that really matters because what it means is essentially what happened is the best ideas, the great ideas that come from communities get percolated into the federal funding system in exactly the way that it should because you’re going to know way better than we are, or anyone in Washington D.C. is going to know, about what your community needs and why does it make a big difference for this community, ” Smith said, explaining the best ideas for federal funding come from the community level. “So having worked at the local level and the state level and now the federal level… I think this is exactly the way this kind of effort should work. The Joint Powers Board is such a great example of local and regional cooperation and collaboration to take care of business and do the really good work that needs to get done. Congratulations to all of you! I’m excited to think about the impact that this is going to have not only for good, clean drinking water and water treatment but also for the jobs and economic development it is going to provide in the community as well.”

Smith congratulated the Joint Powers Board as a great example of communities working together and advocating. “I know that you all are really good at solving problems. To me, that is exactly what is happening here. You are solving a really important problem. Thank you.”

Wacootah Grille was closed for the snow season but was reopened for the event. A U-shape of tables faced posters describing the project with enlarged maps of the area in which the room sat. The tables were full with members of the East Range Joint Water Board, which was established in July 2021, including: Doug Gregor, Chair and Mayor of Aurora; Jon Skelton, Vice Chair and President of the Board for Town of White; Dave Skelton, Secretary and Treasurer; Dennis Schubbe, Aurora member-at-large; and Clark Niemi, Township member-at-large and Foreman for Town of White. 

Smith listened to the board from her seat at the table.

“Congratulations, this has come so far,” said Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum. “I also want to acknowledge this is the water source for the city of Biwabik. We are going to share a water source and sometime in the future we hope to share even more closely.”

Weikum concluded stating how critical it has been for the project to secure the federal funding. 

During the roundtable discussion, Gregor and Weikum stated that an emergency water plan has been put in place in case there is another situation that jeopardizes Biwabik water, as happened in 2018.

A new face at the table was Luke Heikkila, who has since started at the city administrator of Aurora. He has experience working both in Aurora Public Works and for the past six years has been on the board of directors of the Minnesota Rural Water Association. 

Hoyt Lakes Mayor Dave Zins said he doesn’t see Hoyt Lakes joining the project in the near future but stated it is good for his city to have the option.

“I just feel that anytime we can get help from financial aid, especially for small communities where we don’t have a tremendous tax base than a lot of bigger cities,” Zins said. “I think we need to rely on central federal funding to help us out with projects, such as the one we’re going to talk about today.”

He added “if the finances are there” then he would support opting into the project. “I mean, if the taxes are going to have to go up to raise the cost to cover it, we would definitely have to have the backing of the community.”

Ida Rukavina, the new commissioner of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation, added: “This makes sense. Earmarks make sense because of projects like this in rural areas. It just makes sense. Rural residents deserve clean water.”

Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate residents of the area, employees of the East Range municipalities, labor representatives and RAMS members, including former executive director Steve Giorgi.

“This project is a model other Range communities need to learn from,” Giorgi said. “The communities recognized a problem and are pulling resources together to look long term…We do better if we pull together. This is encouraging. Projects like this are so easy to support at the federal level and it does better for the whole region.”

Before the end of the meeting, Giorgi reminded community leaders of the dig once resolution and encouraged preparatory laying fiber for future broadband projects.

Joint Water Project

The project came about with Aurora and the Town of White becoming in immediate need of a new water source and water treatment.

“A few years ago, we landed on the plant will be in Aurora and the water source will be Lake Mine,” said Knaus, while explaining the long process up to this point. “The citizens that live in the Scenic Acres Development Area are going to be getting much needed water and fire protection.”

Two of the three wells in Scenic Acres have failed. Currently, over 30 homes are serviced on one well. There is not enough water to flush the system, which has led to discolored water. 

“Fire is an issue,” explained John Miettunen, a resident of Scenic Acres. “Our system would run out of water in two minutes.” Another issue would be if a major break occurred. These could both lead to catastrophic losses, physically and financially. 

For close to two decades, their needs and those of their neighbors have been researched and planned. Finally, all the hard work is going into action.

The Joint Water Project is planned in two phases. Phase 1 will include water for Aurora and the Town of White. Phase 2 will expand to include Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes. The working assumption is that both phases will eventually be completed to include water access across the East Range. Therefore, Phase 1 includes creating capacity and laying the groundwork for Phase 2. This is more efficient and cost effective. 

The proposed water treatment plant is designed to be constructed mainly of concrete, to last decades, and accounts for future expansion in Phase 2 to allow for the addition of Biwabik and Hoyt Lakes. The design also utilizes modern equipment while the treatment process is familiar to existing operators and similar to facilities in the area. 

The project includes a vertical caisson-style pump station on the shore of Lake Mine where the intake pipe will be a minimum of 50’ below the water surface; below the future low water level of Embarrass Pit. During Phase 1, two pumps will be installed with room for an additional two pumps to be installed during Phase 2.

The Joint Water Project has been divided into five tasks, with the first two already completed: preliminary design, final design, permitting and regulatory approvals, bidding services, construction phase services. This final task is estimated to begin in early 2024.

The estimated construction cost will be about $20.4 million. The total project cost is estimated at $25 million increased to $30 million with inflation. 

Funding initiatives are at various stages of applied, pending, approved and secured totaling $25 million. Estimated community contributions are up to $5 million (see chart below).

Federal Funds

Federal funding is playing a big role in the project after Smith and Klobuchar (D-Minn.) secured $4 million for the Joint Water Project, among others in the region. 

“This is a celebratory moment to be able to help with federal dollars and all the incredible local support and cooperation to get this water project off the ground. They will be putting bids out this spring,” said Smith after the meeting. “Sen. Klobuchar and I worked closely together to get the federal congressionally designated funds to get it going. This is exactly the way it should work community cooperation and we can help make sure the federal dollars are there. I just want to say, a lot of times small towns and rural places feel like they can’t tap into the resources at the federal level. And, you know, if you have a small town with a city clerk- how are you going to know what rent money there might be or how you can participate in that. And that’s the thing that I think we’ve been able to break through with this project that is really critical.”

The meeting was Smith’s first stop of the day on her tour celebrating projects throughout the  area. Following the East Range, she visited Chisholm where $1.2 million in federal funds were given to the United Way to build childcare facilities in Chisholm and Ely. Then, she traveled to Grand Rapids where $350,000 of federal funds were invested in improvements for the Boys and Girls Club Greenway facility. The regional funding package also included $1.3 million for the Ely Area Ambulance Service Joint Powers Board to build a centralized emergency response facility.

Although Ely was not on her tour of the region, Duluth was. There Smith attended a ribbon cutting event for a housing project.

“The Iron Range deserves strong federal partners and I’m proud of the work we did with local leaders to bring these investments here,” said Smith in a press release about the projects. “From making important water infrastructure improvements, supporting emergency response services, increasing access to child care, and expanding housing and shelter resources, these projects are going to have a real, positive impact on people’s lives.”

“This federal funding will have a real impact for communities across the Iron Range. From investing in emergency response services and improving water infrastructure to increasing access to affordable child care, these projects will address key issues impacting Minnesotans on a daily basis. I am proud to have worked with leaders from across the Iron Range to secure the resources for these projects, and I look forward to seeing all the good they will do,” said Klobuchar in the same press release.

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