Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Impaired waters likely a focus of 2004 session

Field Editor

St. Paul State legislators may begin addressing Minnesota’s
declining water quality, based upon an agenda developed by a
diverse stakeholder’s group that met over the last six months to
determine how the state may best meet its obligations under the
federal Clean Water Act.

The stakeholder’s process was initiated by the Minnesota
Pollution Control Agency and facilitated by the Minnesota
Environmental Initiative (MEI). The group was chaired by former
state senator and DNR deputy commissioner Steve Morse, who is now a
senior fellow in the University of Minnesota’s College of Natural
Resources.

“We brought together a mix of business groups, government
agencies, environmental organizations, and others with a focus of
building partnerships and getting things done on the ground,” Morse
says.

Because the group was facilitated by the MEI, a nonprofit
organization that does not lobby or seek legislation, the
stakeholder’s process remained independent of the MPCA and other
government agencies. The stakeholder’s process is an outgrowth of
Gov. Pawlenty’s Water Initiative, which he announced last
summer.

While Minnesota has done a credible job of cleaning up
end-of-the-pipe (point-source) pollution, ongoing development and
degradation of the state’s landscape have resulted in widespread
declines in water quality from nonpoint-source pollution.
Monitoring by the MPCA has identified about 2,000 lakes or stream
reaches that do not meet the clean water standards of the Clean
Water Act. The state must address water pollution issues or face
eventual regulatory action by the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA).

The water impairments, as they are called, are measured by the
Total Maximum Daily Load (TDML) of specific pollutants, such as
phosphorous, fecal coliform bacteria, sediments, or others. Waters
are considered impaired when TDMLs exceed allowable levels. Since
these impairments can be addressed with on-the-ground actions, the
stakeholder’s group focused on them. They chose not to address
mercury, a common contaminant, because it mostly originates as air
pollution outside of Minnesota.

A 16-member policy work group met every other week to work
through the details of impaired waters clean-up and protection.
They received input from a larger 40-member group that held two,
day-long meetings. A final, public meeting in St. Cloud on Jan. 13
attracted 360 participants. This week, the group will present its
recommendations for impaired waters priorities, process, and
funding to the PCA.

“I don’t think the final product is anyone’s first choice, but
we’ve been getting as much agreement as we can,” Morse says.

The group estimates impaired waters issues will cost the state
$75 to $100 million annually. It suggested annual sewage fees to
residences and businesses as a funding source, but Gov. Pawlenty
has indicated he does not support such fees at this time.

Concerns about how an impaired waters program will be funded
remain a sticking point.

In terms of policy, the group decided that existing agencies and
infrastructures can be used to address impaired waters. The group
recommends that an advisory entity be established to provide
oversight and ensure funding reaches the ground. To measure actual
improvements in water quality, ongoing monitoring will be an
important part of the impaired waters program. Discussions about
these and other policy issues are likely to begin during this
legislative session.

“I think we’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of ground work,”
says Leann Buck, executive director of the Minnesota Association of
Soil and Water Conservation Districts and a member of the policy
work group. “The Legislature will have a healthy dialog about
impaired waters policy this year, but it will take a couple of
years to address the funding.”

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