Water quality at risk

Published 9:59 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Among jobs, services and education in peril under Minnesota’s pending budget, water quality may be added to that list.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) worries most environment budget proposals will threaten water quality and the agencies that oversee it.

The closest bill to passing thus far was H.F. 1010, which proposed significant cuts to three state environmental agencies. Under the bill, which was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton on May 24, general funds would’ve been slashed by 26 percent for the Board of Soil and Water Resources, 22 percent for the Department of Natural Resources and 67 percent for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

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Any future cuts could also pose risks for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which Minnesotans voted for in 2008 (74 percent “yes” in Austin) to raise money for environmental improvement projects. Patience Caso, field director for MEP, thinks the amendment, along with its several hundred million dollars, is in trouble. She and MEP officials fear legislation could defeat the purpose of the amendment, which raised taxes for Minnesotans by three-eighths of a percent two years ago for new environmental initiatives.

One bill has asked to repeal the whole amendment.

“That’s a little worrisome,” Caso said. “Mainly what we’re asking for is that the legislature pass a budget bill that is fair.”

However, supporter of the Legacy funds, Senator Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, doesn’t think that will happen.

“That was a proposal that wasn’t voted on by any senators,” he said. Sparks added he would speak with Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday about the Legacy Amendment, so it could be part of the special session’s budget discussion. Sparks said it’s important to keep the Legacy fund for what it was intended because voters were willing to add to their sales tax for the purpose of clean water and land.

“We just need to be very careful,” he said about any misuse of the funds.

Currently, the amendment allocates money under four categories: the Outdoor Heritage Fund (for wildlife and recreation), Clean Water Fund, Parks and Trails Fund and Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (for education). But according to MEP, “(Legislators) did not ensure that Legacy funds were not used as a substitution to our traditional water protection and outdoors programs.” Under the amendment, legislature must maintain traditional funding in the general state budget and not use Legacy funds as any substitution.

If the Legacy funds aren’t kept and soon allocated for 2012 projects, the effects could be felt across Minnesota, as well as locally.

The Cedar River Watershed District has already relied on Legacy funds. In 2011, it received $163,000 from the Amendment for two wetland restorations and a water retention area along Dobbins Creek, of which CRWD matched $60,000. Because environmental agencies get much of their funding only after they agree to match government handouts, setbacks to the Legacy funds could burden agencies like CRWD.

“We always match (grants),” CRWD Administrator Bev Nordby said. “There’s just no way we can fully fund (projects); and we try to match, so we don’t have to raise taxes.”

Caso also worries because several bills have already passed that ease pollution restrictions on major industrial companies. Thus far, one copper mine, a coal mine, some taconite mines, a power plant and the ethanol industry are exempt from Minnesota’s environmental reviews. MEP is concerned further deregulation will harm Minnesota’s wild rice crops, the Mississippi River critical area, Lake Pepin’s water quality, local township rights and more.