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State’s water supply a growing issue

Charley Shaw//January 18, 2013

State’s water supply a growing issue

Charley Shaw//January 18, 2013

Senate Environment and Energy chairman John Marty noted that Minnesota once had a law that set water rates based on consumption levels. It could be time to consider setting rates based on consumption again, he said. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Drought, usage patterns will force legislative attention

Growing pressures on Minnesota’s water supply are bound to be a key issue for environmental committees at the Minnesota Legislature this session.

A couple of joint hearings in the House this week have featured testimony from climatologists and hydrologists on the trends of dropping ground water levels and increased water-pumping in various parts of the state. DFLers and Republicans alike acknowledge that drought conditions are a pressing problem across the state, from drinking water in the Twin Cities to irrigation for rural farm fields. The drought is a top concern for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance chairwoman Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

“There are some issues coming at us that we have to deal with,” she said. “Because of the drought, ground water is one of those issues … It’s troubling for both the environment side and the agriculture side.”

Water policy isn’t the only environmental issue confronting the new Legislature. Aquatic invasive species, frac sand mining and the general fund budget for environmental regulatory agencies are also bearing down on lawmakers. But key legislators have raised the water quantity issue early in session with the intention of hatching proposals that address the myriad issues around water consumption.
The concern comes after some high-profile examples of water shortages in multiple parts of the state. In November the state Department of Natural Resources was sued over declining lake levels in White Bear Lake north of St. Paul. A local conservation group alleged the agency has let neighboring communities draw down the aquifer, resulting in the water level’s decline.

Last year, the city of Worthington had to do an “emergency interconnect” with Iowa when its water supplies ran low, said Jim Sehl, a DNR ground water specialist who showed Wagenius’s committee a picture of a dry reservoir to drive home the point. The number of irrigation permits has risen, and the volume of ground water that’s used for crops has increased, Sehl said. Also, the impact of the changing climate has caused people to seek water deeper and deeper underground. Another factor is the rising thirst for water in rural Minnesota brought on by rising commodity prices and rising land values.

“We can see a large increase [in rural demand], and it’s reflective of climate change and high land values in rural Minnesota,” Sehl said.

A politically divisive subject

Senate Environment and Energy chairman John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the next step will be to set policies to address the parched conditions. He noted that Minnesota once had a law, subsequently repealed, that set water rates based on consumption levels. It could be time to consider setting rates based on consumption again, he said.

“I think [the water supply] is going to take a lot of attention this year and in the coming years. It’s not exclusively tied to the climate debate, but it is related to it,” Marty said.

To the extent that lawmakers weigh the role of human activities in exacerbating the water supply problems, their inquiries are sure to prove politically divisive. The proceedings are being watched closely by municipal, agricultural and business interests.

One activity that has been casually mentioned in committee and stands to see scrutiny is agricultural drainage. Some legislators are concerned that drainage tiles on farmland create a problem by diverting rainfall off the land. But Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a farmer who’s concerned about how the dry conditions are affecting his operation, said the research he’s seen hasn’t brought clarity to questions about agriculture’s role in water levels.

“I do think there is a tendency to over-emphasize the impact of ag drainage,” Torkelson said. “There tend to be a lot of assumptions that are made about the impact of ag drainage on both ground and surface water flows and quantities. I’m hoping that we can get some better science on those particular issues.”
In addition to water quantity, one perennial water issue involves the causes of water pollution. Environmental groups could come to the Capitol with concerns that development and agricultural activities are emitting too much pollution into the water. But so far, the focus has been on water quantity rather than water quality.

Legacy dollars to be debated

Water policy issues are likely to be raised with respect to this year’s Legacy bill. Thirty three percent of the constitutionally dedicated sales tax dollars goes to clean water projects — an amount currently projected at $191 million for the two-year budget period ahead.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said one issue concerns the percentages of clean water money that should go to improving polluted lakes and streams. The Legacy constitutional language specifies that 5 percent of the money in the Clean Water Fund be spent only to protect drinking water sources. Hansen said there will be a debate about the limits of the constitutional percentage.

“Some view that as a ceiling. Others view it as a floor,” Hansen said. “I think we’ll have a discussion about whether those thresholds for drinking water and ground water are ceilings or floors. And where there’s a need, trying to meet that [need] rather than just dividing the [Legacy funding] pie, and every agency around the table gets their proportion.”

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is also raising some issues with the Legacy’s clean water funding in its 2013 legislative agenda. Allison Wolf, the center’s legislative director, said her group is laying the ground work for a proposal that would “improve the way agencies are handing out money and the plans that dictate the priorities for cleanup to make sure we’re spending the money wisely.”

One issue primed for debate this session is the state’s Wetlands Conservation Act of 1991. The law requires that any wetlands that undergo development must be replaced. A perennial battle at the Legislature involves exempting certain small pieces of land from the so-called “no net loss” requirement.

Following on an executive order from Gov. Mark Dayton, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources put together a task force of stakeholders. That group’s recommendations, which do not yet form a complete legislative package, have been discussed in legislative committees in the early days of session. To date, the discussion has centered on simplifying the Wetlands Conservation Act’s complex rules to make it easier for landowners and local governments to navigate.

Another issue related to the act that is controversial for counties involves changing the boundaries for wetland districts from the current county lines configuration to lines based on the location of watersheds.

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