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Minnesota Legislature

How’s the water? Not so great, says Clean Water Fund report card

Paul Gardner, Clean Water Council administrator, provides members of the House Legacy Finance Division a report on the Clean Water Fund Feb. 26. Photo by Paul Battaglia

When Minnesota voters approved the so-called “Legacy Amendment” in 2008, the Clean Water Fund was born.

Financed by a 0.375 percent addition to the state sales tax, it takes one-third of the proceeds and focuses on protecting drinking water sources, as well as protecting, enhancing and restoring lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater.

So, a dozen years in, how are we doing with improving Minnesota’s water quality? That was the focus of a presentation by the Clean Water Council to the House Legacy Finance Division Wednesday.

Administrator Paul Gardner spoke of the successes achieved by the fund in increased lake clarity, decreased municipal wastewater phosphorous discharge, and identifying drinking water contaminants. But the “needs improvement” icon was present on 15 of the 22 outcome categories measured on the Clean Water Fund report card. Four more categories featured the lowest rating: “Water quality is under intense pressure.”

Clean Water Fund presentation 2/26/20

Where’s the pressure? For “Surface Water Measures,” the report card said that “more waterbodies are being listed as impaired.” Under “Drinking Water and Groundwater Measures,” nitrate levels are reported as high in 21 vulnerable townships in southwest Minnesota, as well as in southeast Minnesota and aquifers in the Central Sands region in the center of the state.

As for protecting drinking water, Gardner said that source water protection plans are almost complete for 500 vulnerable community groundwater systems. And for drinking water from surface sources, he said, “Key to our work is getting at those leaking septic systems. Every year, a new generation of septic systems fails.”

Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) talked about rising groundwater levels in southern Minnesota and asked Gardner about the potential for drinking water becoming contaminated if flooding happens this spring. Gardner replied that, “In terms of capacity to test, I have heard from folks in Greater Minnesota that there aren’t enough labs to test these things.”

Wagenius believes there hasn’t been enough of a push by the state to test. She also expressed concerns about insufficient protocols in testing for neonicotinoid insecticides in surface water; that the state has no standard for measurement of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances); and that the report states a goal of source water intake protection planning by 2027.

“After 10 years and a billion dollars, and now we’re going to wait until 2027 to have plans?” Wagenius said. “No way is that acceptable.”

The division chair, Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul), said he would invite Clean Water Fund representatives back to address those issues in more detail.

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