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.

Flattened and upended trees stretch across the ground following the July 12, 2015 supercell storm in the Brainerd lakes area. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch

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.

RELATED: Smartphone video of supercell storm approach
The Brainerd lakes area is not alone, as the entire state and the nation have experienced extreme weather events at one point or another. According to the MPCA, Minnesota now ranks second in the country for extreme weather events, behind California. Minnesotans have seen a 366% increase in homeowner insurance rates since 1998 in large part due to extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

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
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Laura Bishop Wednesday, March 24, 2021, speaks during a news conference to discuss how Minnesota communities can prepare for extreme rain events and other climate change impacts. Screenshot / Jennifer Kraus

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.

RELATED: Neighborhoods still digging out from Sunday's thunderstorm
“We share a common goal of seeing Minnesota’s communities grow and thrive and we recognize that our changing climate and increasing extreme weather presents new challenges for our towns and cities and counties,” Bishop said, adding funding to prepare the state for extreme weather is 20 years overdue. “The cost of inaction is simply too high for our communities.”

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.


The City of Brainerd did a $35 million expansion project to its wastewater treatment facility, which was completed in 2011. Brainerd Dispatch File Photo

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.

RELATED: Economic impact of July storm estimated in millions
Etzler said the neighborhood around the school is something that also needs to be looked at for planning purposes. Staples recently built a new wastewater treatment plant, but Etzler said the city was only able to take care of some of their water issues.

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.”

RELATED: Storm knocks out power to thousands
Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner for water policy with the MPCA, said the state will be there for communities that may need help with planning for wastewater treatment, or help with plans for stormwater retention, rain gardens or reconfiguring landscapes.

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 or 218-855-5851. Follow me at on Twitter.


What To Read Next
Get Local