Competing Clean Water Fund bills move forward in Legislature

by Trevor Russell

The Clean Water Fund is designated to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and protect groundwater. Both the Minnesota Senate and House have authored spending proposals, but they're very different, leaving the fate of our legislative priorities uncertain. (Photo by Tom Reiter)

This week, the House and Senate committees laid out how they think Minnesota should spend its Legacy Amendment funding for clean water programs. We've mapped out how each approaches our legislative priorities, so our FMR River Guardians can get ready to advocate for initiatives like clean-water crops, lead service line replacement and more.

The Clean Water Fund

In 2008, Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to our state constitution, providing a 3/8th of 1 percent sales tax increase dedicated to water quality, land conservation, parks and trails, and the arts. The Clean Water Fund is one of four Legacy-backed funds and receives 33% of all receipts. 

The state's 28-member Clean Water Council makes recommendations to spend or appropriate the Clean Water Fund, though final allocations must be made by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

As we noted earlier this session, the Clean Water Council’s legislative proposals were finalized before the state’s remarkable fiscal turnaround — leaving significant additional dollars available to programs above and beyond the Council’s recommendations.

House & Senate bills

The House bill (HF1079) is authored by Rep. Leon Lille, Chair of the House Legacy Committee. The Senate's bill (SF971) is authored by Sen. Carrie Ruud, Chair of the House Environmental & Natural Resources Policy & Legacy Finance Committee.

Here’s how FMR’s legislative priorities fared in each version of the bill.

Forever Green

Full funding for Forever Green is FMR’s top priority for the session. This innovative program is developing the next generation of winter-hardy perennial and winter-annual cropping systems that protect our water, improve soil health and turn a profit for farm operations.

While we’d prefer Forever Green to be funded in part with general fund money, lawmakers in both chambers have taken a Clean Water Fund-only approach that doesn't hit our funding goal.

  • Current funding level (FY 20-21): $4.3M
  • Our ask (FY 22-23): $10M
  • House bill: $4.5M
  • Senate bill: $4.0M
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

Minnesota’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a permanent land retirement program that utilizes federal matching funds to protect and restore lands in agricultural areas.

While FMR supports this program, we strongly oppose funding it out of the Clean Water Fund, as it has historically been funded through bonding bills. A bonding bill that includes CREP would free up Clean Water Fund resources, but the two sides aren’t close to bonding negotiations.

  • Current funding level: $16M
  • Our ask: $0
  • House bill: $2M   
  • Senate bill: $15.5M
Soil & Water Conservation Districts

Both the House and Senate provide Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) funding, although at different levels. The House includes partial funding while also supporting efforts to allow SWCDs to be self-funded from local sources. The Senate instead pushes all SWCD funding into the Clean Water Fund.

While FMR supports funding for SWCDs, we oppose funding them through the Clean Water Fund and have long supported them to be fully funded through other means (as is the case with virtually all local government operations).

  • Current funding level: $24M
  • Our ask: $0
  • House bill: $12M  
  • Senate bill: $24M   
Promoting soil health

Multiple programs have come forward promoting practices that improve soil health, enhance soil resilience and reduce runoff pollution. Since soil health is a broad topic, there is room for interpretation of what is strictly a soil health bill (vs. bills that have some soil health attributes). Based on conversations with our partners, here is a rough sketch of where each bill lands:

  • Current funding level: $0, since this is a new suite of initiatives
  • Our ask: N/A, since FMR supported modest funding, but not any specific dollar figure
  • House bill: $11.3M   
  • Senate bill: $0     
Lead service lines

Some water service lines made of lead still connect city water lines to individual residences. These lead service lines can pose a significant health risk to Minnesotans. (Think: Flint, Michigan).

Unlike other water infrastructure, state bonding funds cannot be used for this type of water infrastructure.

  • Current funding level: $0, since this is a new initiative
  • Our ask: $2.5M
  • House bill: $2.5M   
  • Senate bill: $0     

Note: President Biden’s recent infrastructure proposal includes significant federal match funding for state lead service line replacement efforts, but Minnesota will need to provide our portion of the funding should such federal legislation advance.

Targeted wellhead protection

The House version of the bill includes $5 million in funding for a new targeted wellhead protection initiative. The proposal would fund permanent land protection in the form of easements in at-risk Drinking Water Supply Management Areas in greater Minnesota — areas where water soaks into the ground to recharge community wells. While we didn’t originally take a position on this proposal, we're generally supportive of such efforts.

What’s next?

The key committees in each chamber (House Legacy Committee and Senate Environment & Natural Resources Policy & Legacy Finance Committee) are moving their Clean Water Fund appropriations forward inside a larger Omnibus Legacy Bill. Once passed off the floor in each chamber, both bills will land in a special Conference Committee made up of House and Senate members. That group will work out a compromise bill that both sides can agree to.

That “Conference Report” will then need to pass with a majority of votes in each chamber by May 17 before going to the governor for his signature.

That means that we'll be calling on our River Guardians to advocate for these initiatives in the next month.

You can help!

Become a River Guardian

Sign up to become a River Guardian, and we'll let you know when important environmental issues arise. We make it quick and easy to contact decision-makers and make your voice heard. River Guardians are also invited to special events, including happy hours, to learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues.

Keep up to date

We write regular updates about key environment and water quality issues on our Water and Legislative Updates blog and share them on social media (Facebook and Twitter) and in our twice-monthly e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages.