City, watershed lay out bonding fund requests

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Leaders with the city of Albert Lea and Shell Rock River Watershed District presented requests for state bonding funds in the upcoming legislative session Tuesday during a stop in town by the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee.

The committee is in the middle of a tour in communities in the southeast part of the state, visiting sites of proposed investment. Other stops included the Minnesota Zoo, state colleges and universities, the Hmong American Farmers Association and wastewater treatment systems, along with others.

Shell Rock River Watershed District Administrator Andy Henschel said the watershed district is requesting $8.45 million to complete the third and final phase of dredging of Fountain Lake.

The first two phases of dredging have taken out about 1.2 million cubic yards of phosphorus-rich sediment, and when the project is complete, they hope to have removed about 1.7 million cubic yards.

Henschel said Fountain Lake was added to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s impaired waters list in 2008 and through studies of the lake, it has been found that between 40% to 8o% of the phosphorus loads came internally from in the lake.

The dredging project began in 2014, when the project was awarded $7.5 million in bonding funds from the state. There has been $9.5 million in funds through the local option sales tax that have matched the project.

Phase one began in 2018, and then the second phase began in 2020.

The district is unable to finish the dredging without additional funds.

Henschel said about $600,000 more than originally planned is needed because the dredge had to be removed from the lake at the end of the summer and will have to be put back in when the funding is in place.

Shari Jenson, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, said Fountain Lake is in the heart of the city and talked about the economic revitalization happening in downtown Albert Lea — something she says would not be happening without the restoration of the lake.

“One of our storefronts is the lake. It was one of the drivers in Albert Lea. It is our economic engine.”

She said the lake is important for the downtown businesses, for employee retention and for the quality of life for all of the community’s residents.

Holly Karsjens, executive director of the Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Albert Lea is known as the Land Between the Lakes and that Fountain Lake is often something that brings people to the community, referencing events such as the Governor’s Fishing Opener in 2019, the Fourth of July fireworks over the lake, Wind Down Wednesday and Thursdays on Fountain.

“Tourism and economy and economic vitality would not be possible without the work of the watershed district and the improvements to our lake, fish and wildlife habitat throughout the area.”

Albert Lea wastewater treatment plant

The city of Albert Lea is requesting $30 million in bonding funds to go toward its wastewater treatment plant.

A video shown to the legislators said the total improvements are estimated to cost $60 million.  The wastewater treatment facility was constructed in 1981 and is facing new regulations for phosphorus removal through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said of the total projected costs, about $30 million are due to the new phosphorous removal mandates.

The treatment center treats about four million gallons of wastewater per day, which includes 10 large commercial users that employ about 1,600 workers in the community. These 10 companies pay for essentially 50% of the treatment plant.

City Manager Ian Rigg described the project as both an “environmental and jobs project” because of the impact the project has on the large water users in the community.

Rasmussen said if the city did not get the bonding funds, the companies would have to take on greater costs.

When the project is complete, the city also hopes to make some other upgrades to include efficiencies, including switching to LED lighting and high-efficiency motors and blowers.

House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, said the committee will take the information it has learned during the tour back to the Capitol in January to make the best decisions for bonding across the state.

He said the state has the capacity to bond for over $3.3 billion, though he is not sure it will be that high. The committee is hearing about $5.4 billion in requests.

“For us to really address the needs we’re hearing from Albert Lea and other places we’ve been visiting, we need to make sure we have a robust bonding bill next session,” Lee said.