Legislative update: Few reasons to smile amid a deluge of dirty water bills

The 2015 legislative session in Minnesota is shaping up to be a mixed bag for water quality and the great outdoors. While the Governor's buffer initiative and Forever Green funding are cause for optimism, a deluge of so-called "dirty water bills" has become an unwelcome theme this session.

The good news

Two priority bills that have been introduced and heard this session have great promise for water quality and habitat in Minnesota.

The Governor's buffer initiative [HF 1534 & SF 1537] was unveiled on March 6. FMR and our conservation partners have reviewed the bill with agency leadership and strongly support this vital conservation effort. See our article on the buffers initiative in this month's Mississippi Messages.

In addition, a bill funding the UofM's Forever Green Initiative [HF 693a> & SF 579.] has been warmly received in committee hearings. It promises to accelerate development of economically viable winter annual and perennial crop options for Minnesota farm operations, with a goal of improving water quality, habitat and the agricultural economy.

The bad news

On the heels of recent reports that Minnesota is falling behind on water quality, a series of bills introduced this session offer rollbacks on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board, weakened protections for groundwater quality and supply and attempt to move control over water quality standards from agency scientists to politicians in St. Paul.

  1. Dirty Water 1: Water quality standards override [HF 616 & SF 689]
    Lead Authors: Rep. Fabian, Sen. Eken
    These bills, which have been the subject of colorful conversations at the Capitol, would hand over the final say on Minnesota's science-based water quality standards process to the Legislature, who could deny new standards if polluters object. In addition, these bills would suspend our hard-won sediment and phosphorus pollution standards, and require an expensive and duplicative water rules cost-benefit analysis even though the state already conducts such studies for all water quality rules and standards.
  2. Dirty Water 2: Duplicative peer review [HF 617 & SF 690]
    Lead Authors: Rep. Fabian, Sen. Eken
    This bill requires an expensive and duplicative peer review process for all proposed water quality rules, even though the State already conducts extensive peer review, public comment, and administrative law reviews of all proposed water quality rules and standards. This is an attempt by polluting industries to get a "second bite at the apple" when the agencies develop standards that polluters do not like.
  3. Dirty Water 3: Politicizing water quality standards [HF 1261 & SF 1369]
    Lead Authors: Rep. Kresha, Sen. Eken
    Similar to HF 616 and SF689, this bill (sponsored by the League of MN Cities) would hand over control of water quality standards to state legislators. FMR is strongly opposed to this bill, as water quality standards should remain free from unnecessary political interference.
  4. Dirty Water 4: Weakening the MPCA Citizens Board [HF 1394]
    Lead Authors: Rep. Fabian
    This bill would remove many of the duties and authorities of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizens Board. The Citizens Board was created to ensure the public had a say when the MPCA sets new standards and policies. Angered over the Board's wise decision to request environmental review of a giant feedlot operation last year, this bill would retaliate by removing critical citizen oversight over our state agency.
  5. Dirty Water 5: Blocking the wild rice standard [HF 1000 & SF 1007]
    Lead Authors: Rep. Melin, Sen. Tomassoni
    These bills, sponsored by Iron Range legislators that favor risky new mining operations, aim to prohibit enforcement of the state's wild rice standard.
  6. Dirty Water 6: Groundwater protections rollback [SF 1378] & HF 1494
    Lead Authors: Sen. Fischbach, Rep. Howe
    This bill would restrict the state's ability to limit groundwater withdrawals in high-risk areas by placing the burden of proof on the state, rather than those proposing to withdraw large sums of water. This expensive "burden of proof" bill could hamper the state's nascent groundwater sustainability programs.
  7. Dirty Water 7: Corn stover harvest subsidy [HF 536 & SF 517)
    Lead Authors: Rep. Hamilton, Sen. Saxhaug
    These bills offer millions in new corn-ethanol subsidies to ethanol plants for removing corn stover from MN's farm fields after harvest for use as an ethanol feedstock. While widespread stover removal would harm water and soil health, FMR and our partners are working with bill sponsors. We are working to amend the bill to focus on perennial biofuel crop incentives that would protect water quality, soil health, climate, habitat and pollinators while ushering in the next generation of advanced biofuels.

Despite widespread public support for clean water and healthy lands, many of these dirty-water bills have won support from Minnesota legislators.

FMR and our partners, with the support of our members and allies across the state, will continue to fight for legislation that protects and restores Minnesota's natural resources while defending unnecessary and costly rollbacks to cherished natural resource protections.

Will you join us? Let your legislators know where you stand on these dirty water bills today!