Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and a handful of other state officials were in Detroit Lakes Tuesday morning, Oct. 29, to tour the ongoing construction project at the city’s new wastewater treatment plant.

The stop was one of many along the governor’s two-month, statewide bonding tour; Walz was headed to Moorhead next, and then on to Grand Forks later Tuesday afternoon.

Joining him in Detroit Lakes was a group of about 25 people, including representatives of state environmental and agricultural agencies, local and regional politicians, city leaders, project engineers, and employees of the wastewater treatment plant.

Gov. Tim Walz, third from right, poses for a group picture outside the Detroit Lakes wastewater treatment plant following a tour of the facility on Tuesday, Oct. 29. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Gov. Tim Walz, third from right, poses for a group picture outside the Detroit Lakes wastewater treatment plant following a tour of the facility on Tuesday, Oct. 29. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

The plant is in the midst of a $34 million overhaul to replace aging facilities, meet stringent new nutrient load limits, and accommodate future population growth. About half the cost of the project, $17 million, is being funded by the state in the form of a Public Facilities Authority grant; the other half is being covered via a low-interest (1.099%), 20-year loan.

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Ground was broken on the project in April 2018, and it’s now nearly 75% complete, officials said during the tour. It’s expected to be finished in April or May of 2020.

Multi-community tours to see state-backed public works projects like this are not uncommon for Minnesota legislators, but this is a first for the governor. Walz announced his plans for the bonding tour in mid-October, saying he wanted to see projects firsthand in what is expected to be a record year for bonding requests.

“It’s great to be here, and to see our tax dollars at work,” he said during his visit to the Detroit Lakes plant. “This is a great project.”

Walz said learning more about the various elements that go into a major project like this — how the facility will work, how it’s being constructed, and how its being funded — will allow him and other legislators to “go tell the story across the state. It educates us. We can tell citizens that their tax dollars are going to good projects.”

Detroit Lakes Public Utilities Commission General Manager Vernell Roberts leads Gov. Tim Walz and others across an outdoor walkway at the wastewater treatment facility. In the ponds below, wastewater cycles through the first stages of a biological cleansing process. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Detroit Lakes Public Utilities Commission General Manager Vernell Roberts leads Gov. Tim Walz and others across an outdoor walkway at the wastewater treatment facility. In the ponds below, wastewater cycles through the first stages of a biological cleansing process. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

“This is not about being Big Brother,” he said. “It’s about working together, collaborating ... to give citizens what they want, and they want clean water.”

The new facility will reduce the phosphorous entering nearby Lake St. Clair by 94% (from 1 milligram per liter down to .066 milligrams per liter), meeting strict new regulatory standards. Lake St. Clair was placed on the impaired list due to high levels of excess nutrients, which cause algal blooms.

Detroit Lakes Public Utilities General Manager Vernell Roberts, who led the plant tour, said some of the facility's original structures dated back to the 1940s; those are being completely replaced during this project. Other structures that were added later, in the late '90s, are being updated and repurposed.

When it's finished, Roberts said, "It's going to be a great facility for the community."

“I’m just impressed by this,” Walz said of the new plant. “When this facility is complete, it will be state-of-the-art. And it’s designed to last for 100 years … for future generations.”

Walz called the new facility a smart use of federal, state and local tax dollars, a smart use of technology, and a strong show of commitment by a “can-do” community.

“Clean water is something everybody needs,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

"It was nice to hear support from the governor for projects like this in our state," Roberts said after the tour. "I think it went well. I think (legislators) ... are seeing that the investments the state is making in these high-dollar ... projects are actually good investments. A lot of times they don't really realize the impact and the benefit that it brings to a community."