Tuesday, March 21st, 2023
Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

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Commentary: Small drainage bill, but potentially big boost for habitat and more in Minnesota

Lance Ness, past president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance, says Minnesota bill HF2354 merits support from the outdoor community to help ensure protection of the state's public waters. (Stock photo)

The Minnesota Legislature is deliberating a small but important bill (HF2354) that would make a big difference for our state’s public waters. It would, for the first time, provide timely notice of proposed agricultural drainage projects to downstream landowners and others potentially affected by impacts to water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, human health, and possible soil erosion and flood damage.

For these reasons and those discussed below, HF2354 merits support from the outdoor community.

Current notice requirements in the Minnesota Drainage Code fail to provide effective notice of proposed drainage projects to downstream landowners, state and local government units, and people who live outside the drainage area but who hunt, fish, and otherwise recreate on public lands and waters within that area. Notice need only be provided – typically in local meeting announcements or news outlets – at the time a Preliminary Engineer’s Report already has been prepared and key engineering determinations already have been made.

HF2354 would change things by establishing a statewide electronic database that lists drainage projects at the time they are proposed.

This would facilitate early coordination for all interested stakeholders. Drainage projects that enhance natural resources as well as crop production would have time to develop. Thanks to the internet, this modernization would be a modest and low-cost undertaking.

HF2354 comes at a time when considerable re-plumbing of drainage systems is at hand, brought on by aging and crumbling existing infrastructure, more land in crop production, ever-expanding private drainage, and precipitation patterns altered by climate change.

Decisions made in this context would shape the future of both agricultural production and the health of our lakes, streams, uplands, and groundwater for generations.

The threats are severe. For example, the Minnesota River is badly impaired by excess sediment and other pollutant loads. Stream-bank erosion is largely to blame. The state of Minnesota has committed to reducing current sediment loads by 50%, largely by reducing erosion from frequent, “low-flow” storm events. Such events are ones that new drainage projects often have the potential to increase rather than decrease.

Protection and improvement of our fisheries, and macro invertebrate and mollusk populations are a concern. Altered hydrological flows, temperature changes, algal blooms, and aquatic habitat destruction can all bring down their numbers.

Erosion caused by downstream flows also often interferes with use and enjoyment of downstream properties. Take, for example, the Waskosky family, whose house now teeters on the Le Sueur River bluff, at great risk of toppling over from additional erosion. Or downstream farmers including Sever Peterson, who have been flooded off their historically productive cropland.

The sheer increased volume of water being drained through our Minnesota watersheds is driving these effects. For example, the flow of the Minnesota River has doubled in the past 80 years. Combined with the expanded use of fertilizers and pesticides, erosive bank flows, major floods along the Minnesota, Mississippi, and Red rivers, and expensive taxpayer-funded flood-control projects, this is not something we can ignore. New drainage work presents both the opportunity to do something positive and the threat of missing that opportunity.

Continued wetland losses are also at stake. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented continuing wetland losses in the Prairie Pothole Region. Losses of emergent wetlands, including acres lost to agricultural development, were greatest overall. Minnesota had the most such losses among the five states evaluated, measured both in terms of lost acres and lost basins. Subsequent monitoring by the Minnesota DNR shows continuing wetland losses on agricultural lands.

In locations where public drinking water supplies are taken from lakes and rivers, even public health is at risk – from nitrate contamination, which also threatens fish species and could be addressed through drainage improvement design.

Climate also figures into the equation. Recent reports conclude that agriculture is the one economic sector not making progress toward carbon-reduction goals.

Climate resiliency built into drainage systems may prove to be the best bet to reverse this trend and, at the same time, provide both crop protection and natural resources benefits.

Drainage design and construction that, for example, integrates water storage and soil health along with pollution-reduction features can achieve both goals.

While threats from agricultural drainage can seem dire at times, the good news is that the need for some re-plumbing presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to design and build drainage projects that accomplish multiple purposes: increased and less risky crop production, healthy water, abundant habitat, safe drinking water, and flood-damage reduction. New state and federal funding – through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act and the Minnesota’s new Water Quality and Storage Program – can help make this happen.

When many affected people are in the dark as drainage proposals proceed, however, it is unlikely that multipurpose features will be included in project designs. Readily accessible public notice at the outset and early coordination are the keys to designing multi-purpose projects and establishing partnerships to fund them.

HF2354 would not make any substantive change to current drainage law. It would simply require drainage authorities to file an electronic copy of the petition initiating a drainage project with the Board of Water and Soil Resources. BWSR would then post those filings on a searchable electronic database.

In response to concerns raised by some (whose organizations serve along with some of us on Minnesota’s Drainage Work Group), HF2354 is narrowly tailored to avoid administrative costs to drainage authorities. In response to another concern that drainage repairs should not be included, HF2354 does not mention them.

It’s time to pass this updated public notice process for drainage expansions. We need all affected people involved in the process of modernizing and improving our watersheds.

(By Lance Ness / Past president, Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance)

Editor’s note: Supporters of this bill include: the Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Division; Trout Unlimited; Friends of Minnesota Valley; Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River; Clean Up Our River Environment; the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, New Ulm Area Sportsfishermen; and Friends of the Mississippi River.

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