Proposed grant program would help communities prepare for extreme weather
“In the last 10 years, we've seen mega rains in communities including Willmar, Brainerd and Duluth. These extreme storms are a risk to public safety, they damage public infrastructure, and they can have devastating effects and result in costly cleanups for families, homes and businesses:” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner said.
The Brainerd lakes area is no stranger to extreme weather events, such as tornadoes, blizzards and ice or hail storms.
Remember when a severe storm packing winds with the force of a Category 2 hurricane hit the lakes area during the summer of 2015? This storm altered the landscape with devastating straight-line winds in Cass and Crow Wing counties and some residential areas were out of power for weeks. This storm cost residents about $250 million in insurance losses, Mark Kulda of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota said Wednesday, March 24, during a virtual news conference about extreme weather hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Increasingly wet weather and more frequent and intense rainfalls amplify flood risks for homes and businesses, overburden aging and inadequate water infrastructure, and contribute to a statewide average of 150 wastewater overflows each year, including 24 incidents of partially treated wastewater being released in the north-central and northeastern part of Minnesota in 2019-20, the MPCA reported.
MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop spoke during the news conference, along with community leaders and advocates, to appeal for crucial investments to help north-central and northeastern Minnesota communities prepare for extreme rain events and other climate change impacts.
Funding to help communities prepare for extreme weather is important, Bishop said. Gov. Tim Walz is proposing a $2.9 million investment for a grant program that would be active for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. The governor’s proposal still has to go through the Legislature and would have to pass to be a reality. If approved, the state would provide grants to communities statewide for climate resiliency planning. These grants can pay for the climate risk assessment, planning and pre-design needed to inform the development of bonding proposals to upgrade stormwater infrastructure, an MPCA fact sheet reported. Grants would be available on a competitive basis to counties, cities, townships and tribal nations in Minnesota.
Bishop said, due to climate change, Minnesota is becoming warmer and has seen more intense, extreme precipitation events.
“These mega rain events are now four times more likely than they were just a generation ago,” Bishop said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen mega rains in communities including Willmar, Brainerd and Duluth. These extreme storms are a risk to public safety, they damage public infrastructure, and they can have devastating effects and result in costly cleanups for families, homes and businesses.”
Staples Mayor Chris Etzler, who was one of the speakers during the virtual seminar, said this type of planning is essential for rural communities to prepare approaches on how to address extreme weather and infrastructure needs. Etzler said smaller communities typically are struggling to provide the basic services. He said if Staples received $20,000 — or 2% of its tax levy — it may seem small but it would be impactful for the city to be able to hold their levy down, which is what city constituents want.
Bishop said if the funding is approved, the state would be able to help up to 15 communities each year. She said she knows the needs for communities to prepare for extreme weather events is much higher, but the proposal is a start.
Etzler said looking back on weather events, Staples has been reactionary instead of being proactive with its planning. A tornado hit Staples in 2015 that took out its softball complex and the city is just working on that project right now.
“I hate to even say this but we’re basically built on a swamp,” Etzler said. “So our water issues that we have can be great and we need infrastructure within our community. We still have pieces that go back to the late ‘30s and early ‘40s that surround the high school.”
Etzler said a school referendum is planned April 13 to address some of the water issues around the high school. He said there have been rain events in the high school that flooded classrooms. The mayor said there was an area that flooded every time even if there wasn’t much rain and they temporarily fixed it a couple of years ago, with a Band-Aid approach.
Cheryal Hills of the Region Five Development Commission, who also spoke during the seminar, said the commission is supportive of the state’s approach and said relationships between the local and state organizations really helps serve the smaller rural communities, such as Staples that are at a disadvantage because they are under-resourced.
Hills said bringing folks together from local communities who understand wastewater issues or how flooding or straight-line winds can impact communities is a good thing. She said these planning grants allow communities to bring in the experts, such as the engineers to come up with solutions through innovative and new technology to mitigate these extreme weather disasters. She said the communities are the ones that know which issues they have and what they want to prioritize in fixing any wastewater issue, for instance.
“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Brainerd you had straight-line winds that have impacted your economy to millions of dollars and this is what you should do,’” Hills said. “It’s really to understand, what are all of the possibilities? What has the greatest economic impact for the leverage dollars that we’re using in terms of taxpayer dollars that have the highest environmental benefit? That’s the ... difficult task when you’re doing this kind of planning is balancing the use of public funds, with the environmental benefits, and maximizing both. That’s why this planning is important. It’s not easy.”
Kessler said Brainerd’s wastewater treatment plant is fairly new, but the city has had rain events where the tank was unable to hold any more water and it would cause water to runoff into the field.
“This just goes to show that you can build something fabulous with the best engineering standards and that weather is going to find a way (around it),” she said. “Each community will be best situated to figure out where they have the most vulnerabilities and where their priorities lie.”
When the storm hit the Brainerd lakes area during the summer of 2015, costing residents about $250 million in insurance losses, Kulda said there are things a homeowner can do to help with this sort of storm damage. He said people can replace their shingles with the more expensive resistant shingles that help prevent hail damage. People can also buy a backup battery for their sump pump to help decrease the amount of storm damage to a home.
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.