Minn. House backs water fee hikes

Published 10:36 am Friday, April 19, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota House voted Thursday to pay for environmental protection efforts by tacking new fees on water, whether it comes from the kitchen tap or the sprinkler in the corn field.

The Democratic-led House voted 69-61 for the wide-ranging budget bill for natural resources and agriculture programs, which would raise water fees an estimated $6 million annually once fully implemented and would have a dual purpose.

The new water fees would go toward things such as exploring groundwater changes, improving water quality, preventing contamination, installing monitoring systems and developing new management efforts. And rates would differ for residential and industrial customers according to consumption, which could help prevent excessive water usage, supporters say.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, the bill’s sponsor and an outspoken lawmaker on environmental issues, cast the water fees as essential for protecting the water supply for future generations.

“I know this is hard for Minnesotans. We’ve all assumed that the water in our state is an infinite resource,” she said. “After all, we’re the land of 10,000 lakes.”

She said the typical homeowner would pay about 75 cents more per year, but those prone to heavy lawn watering could see their costs rise about $4.

Lawmakers from farm country said the fees are an even bigger worry to them.

“Farmers are facing substantial increases in this bill when it comes to water and fees,” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.

Proponents of the new fees projected that farmers would pay $2 to $3 more per acre, double that range in drier years. Municipal water systems and golf course operators would see their costs rise by thousands per year.

The water management measures go beyond the fees. The House adopted an amendment that would require the Department of Natural Resources to develop groundwater management areas where the resource is of greatest concern, which would lead to added permit fees for water use in those places in the future.

To foster efforts to keep toxic material out of landfills, the bill would create new stewardship programs for makers and sellers of batteries, carpet and paint that spell out how they should collect and recycle materials. New fees at the producer level would be imposed to support the programs.

The result is “more cost to paint, more cost to carpet, more costs to batteries,” said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau. “Minnesotans will pay more.”

Rep. Mike Sundin, who promoted the stewardship effort, estimated that the paint fee, for example, would be about 75 cents per gallon. He said it’s right to peg the cost of recycling to those who use the services rather than letting it fall to property taxes.

“That 75-cent fee should be paid by paint users not by someone who has a brick house and wood floors,” said Sundin, DFL-Esko.

Republicans criticized aspects of the bill that they said would cause wasteful spending. Among the parts they ridiculed were two $300,000 appropriations: one to construct a public restroom near Crane Lake and another to fund efforts to restore native plant species along state trails to create suitable habitats for struggling bee, moth and butterfly populations.

“We may need to have ‘bee crossing’ signs along our state trails,” said Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck.

Wagenius defended the spending as vital to ensuring the vibrancy of Minnesota’s agricultural ecosystem. She said as those insects suffer, so too will the food supply. As for locating the “pollinator” project along trails, she said it’s meant to educate people about the importance of bees and other pollinators.

The bill includes almost $3 million that would go toward creating a state board to establish standards for silica sand mining, which is a booming industry in southeastern Minnesota. Lawmakers have been grappling with how to regulate the budding industry, which has the potential to be an economic generator as prospectors search for new deposits of a product oil companies use later in hydraulic fracturing. Some communities worry that the rush has outpaced environmental concerns created when the sand is extracted and transported.

The Senate is expected to vote Friday on its environmental programs budget.