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Climate change led to Brandon wastewater spill, Minnesota pollution official says

Gov. Walz's MPCA commissioner argues for more funding for extreme weather events.

Flooding
A storm drain at Bethany on the Lake on Lark Street couldn't keep up with a 2018 downpour. (Echo Press file photo)

Extreme weather is overwhelming Minnesota’s aging water treatment systems, state officials say, resulting in partially treated wastewater spills in northwestern Minnesota, including a spill in Brandon.

During a press conference on Friday, Feb. 26, Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, made the case for Walz’s $2.9 million, two-year plan to help communities prepare for more extreme weather, including “mega rains.”

“Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our families and communities and it’s no longer a far-off possibility,” she said. “It’s happening here, right now, and with devastating effects.”

Mark Kulda of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota said insurance companies have seen a dramatic rise in damage caused by severe storms, costs that are passed on to homeowners.

Weather-related claims remained stable from the mid- to late-1900s, until three severe storms in 1998 caused $1.5 billion of insured losses in Minnesota, Kulda said.

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“That $1.5 billion in insured losses was more than the previous 40 years combined,” he said. “And it hasn’t stopped.”

Damage from these storms have pushed homeowner premiums up from an average of $368 in 1998 to nearly $1,400 today, he said. In 1998, Minnesota was one of the least expensive states for homeowners insurance; today, it’s one of the most expensive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, the $368 cost in 1998 would be worth $596 today.

Kulda said he has seen statistics that say Minnesota is second for extreme weather events following California, with flooding in Duluth and hail in the Twin Cities. In 2010, Minnesota led the nation in tornado touchdowns with 144 touchdowns, more than Texas.

Not to mention, he said, a Category 2 hurricane-style storm that hit southwestern Minnesota in 2011.

A hurricane in Minnesota? Airport manager Richard Sigurdson, reached for comment after the press conference, said he was at the Olivia Airport that day. He doesn't recall what the wind speed was, but straight line winds blew for about half an hour and tore part of the roof off a hangar, tipped over a trailer and knocked a lot of trees down in Olivia. A storm chaser's blog, Skip Talbot's Storm Chasing Chronicles, was also there that day and described it as a "small, land-based hurricane," or a "landcane."

One of the areas most at risk during extreme weather are sewer, wastewater and stormwater systems, which are more than 100 years old in some places, Bishop said. While some communities already are planning for more extreme weather, the governor wants to make sure all communities can do so, Bishop said.

Increasingly wet weather and extreme storms contribute to a statewide average of 150 overflows each year, the agency said, including 29 incidents of partially treated wastewater being released in northwestern Minnesota in 2019-2020.

The Brandon spill occurred Aug. 14, 2020, when a lift station was overwhelmed after days of rain, according to the state. It lasted 1.5 hours and released 27,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater.

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In response, Brandon stopped the release as soon as possible, and the agency required Brandon to take steps to prevent it from happening again.

Most of the spills in northwestern Minnesota occurred in Polk County, which had 11 over two years, according to the agency.

Proposed grants would help communities create climate resiliency, including assessing local infrastructure risks and vulnerabilities, planning and predesign work, and engineering pre-work to secure future funding for more work.

Minnesota doesn't currently fund any of these activities, Bishop said.

The funding effort drew support from a labor group, Democratic legislators Paul Marquart and Kent Eken, as well as the Fergus Falls and Moorhead mayors.

“I think what’s happened in Texas illustrates the importance of getting out ahead of these extreme weather events” said Eken, who is from Twin Valley, about two hours north of Alexandria. “I don’t think there’s any better place where we can be investing our money.”

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