Legislators delay MN groundwater protection, Dayton says 'no'

by Trevor Russell

A new state rule aimed at reducing groundwater contamination by farm fertilizers could be delayed by a legislative move made formal on Monday, June 11. But Gov. Mark Dayton is calling the move unconstitutional and has instructed the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to proceed as planned. 

At this time, public hearings about the new and much-needed water protection rule are still on the state agency's calendar, including one in Farmington, Monday, July 16.

Political maneuvering

In a surprising late-session move, GOP chairs of the Minnesota House and Senate had threatened to delay the proposed Groundwater Protection Rule if Gov. Mark Dayton decided not to sign an unrelated ag policy bill. This week, as covered by Minnesota Public Radio, they followed through on that threat.

In the final days of the session, the House and Senate agricultural committees used an obscure provision (Minnesota Statute section 14.126) to delay the rule's enactment.

Per the statute: “If the standing committee of the House of Representatives and the standing committee of the Senate with jurisdiction over the subject matter of a proposed rule both vote to advise an agency that a proposed rule should not be adopted as proposed, the agency may not adopt the rule until the Legislature adjourns the annual legislative session that began after the vote of the committees.”

Legislators had pledged to withhold the paperwork in exchange for the governor’s signature on an unrelated bill, which the governor then proceeded to veto. Legislators retaliated by submitting the paperwork in an attempt to delay an important drinking water protection measure.

As a result, enactment of the rules may be delayed until after the 2019 legislative session, well into the term of Minnesota’s next governor... who may or may not prioritize drinking water protection.

Governor’s response

Gov. Mark Dayton rejected the Legislature’s intervention and has publicly instructed the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) to proceed with the draft's development.

“We will not abide Republican legislators’ politically-motivated attempts to intrude upon the work of the executive branch,” said Dayton in a written statement.

It remains unclear whether or how the dispute will be resolved.

Minnesotans' drinking water at risk

The 1989 Groundwater Protection Act gives the state authority to protect our groundwater, the source of drinking water for about 75% of Minnesotans.

This is a serious issue:
• 537 public water supply wells across the state have elevated levels of nitrate, primarily from farm fertilizer
•  More than 50 Minnesota communities face significantly elevated nitrate levels
Nearly 10% of Department of Agriculture-tested private wells in vulnerable areas exceed the state health risk limit, including some townships with 30-40% or more of private wells unsafe to drink

To address this problem, the state has proposed a two-part rule to require improved fertilizer management in the most vulnerable areas, using steps that many farmers already take.

These measures, while modest, will help protect drinking water for communities and families across the state, and should not fall victim to political retaliation.

Action alerts soon to come!

FMR and our allies will be working with Minnesotans from across the state to ensure a strong rule that adequately protects our public and private wells from contamination. 

The Groundwater Protection Rule is currently in draft form and open for public comment until late July. 

Informational meetings and public hearings are being hosted throughout the state. Learn more about participating in the meetings and hearings — including one Monday, July 16 in Farmington — on the MDA's project page.  

To receive the July Action Alert to protect our drinking water, sign up to be a River Guardian. We'll send you a link to quickly act online when the time is right, and we'll also send occasional invites to special events like River Guardian happy hours.