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MINNESOTA: What is clean water worth?
By Dennis Lien
Pioneer Press

Minnesotans invariably say water quality is important to them.

In a couple of months, they' ll be asked how important - as in how much they're willing to pay to make it better.

After meeting since early summer, a diverse group of organizations is putting the finishing touches on a legislative proposal to upgrade the quality of the state's lakes and rivers, many of which are polluted. That strategy, outlining how the state should conduct and pay for the effort, carries a huge price tag: an estimated $75 million to $100 million a year.

To finance it, the group, which includes public, private, business, agricultural and environmental groups, is proposing a broad fee or tax: All homeowners would pay $36 a year and businesses $150.

"We thought a flat rate was the right way to start out,'' said Craig Johnson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, one of about 60 groups involved.

Whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators go along with that approach -or even the amount the group says is needed-is unclear.

"That is a vast amount of money to come up with at this point,'' said Rep. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel.

One of several legislators who got a peek at the initiative last week, Jungbauer said he favors a strategy that would have water users or polluters shouldering more of the burden.

But that's a problem, according to group members, who point out that 86 percent of the pollution that now funnels into lakes and streams is essentially urban and rural runoff, meaning there's often no identifiable source. If there's no one to point a finger at, they add, there's no one to dun.

At this point, the group would have individual homeowners pay an extra $3 a month on their water bills. Homeowners with septic tanks would pay an extra $36 a year on their property tax bills. Businesses, regardless of size, would pay $150 a year.

Pawlenty, who has stressed water-quality measures in the past year, hasn't taken a position yet on the proposal, according to Sheryl Corrigan, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The Legislature, which meets Feb. 2, would have the final say on the proposal, which would come from the Pawlenty administration.

The money would pay for the three stages of a highly complex, ongoing effort to clean up lakes and rivers, which often are tainted with nutrients such as phosphorus, pollutants such as mercury, and sediment.

The federal Clean Water Act mandates the state identify lakes and streams that fail to meet certain water-quality standards, cite the specific problems and causes, and make reasonable progress toward improving them.

So far, the state has assessed 5 percent of its streams and 12 percent of its lakes. About 40 percent of those water bodies or river stretches, or 1,774 in all, have been determined to be impaired, a pollution rate that's close to the national average.

About one-fifth of the money that's being sought would be used to assess the state's water and to study how to improve water quality in particular waterways. The other four-fifths would be used for actual restoration, which could mean new community wastewater treatment plants, upgraded septic or storm water systems, or improved agricultural practices.

"The key thing for us is, these federal mandates are coming regardless of what the state legislature does,'' Johnson said. "This whole process is about trying to make sure there are some resources for communities to deal with this huge federal mandate."

"As we go forward, what we are trying to do is avoid the train wreck that would occur if we don't develop a systematic process for identifying and restoring these impaired waters," said former state Sen. Steve Morse, the group's chair.

Even if the state weren't required to make the improvements, it would make sense, according to Corrigan and Lisa Thorvig, the MPCA's assistant commissioner.

When a water body has been deemed impaired, restrictions aimed at preventing additional pollution kick in until a restoration plan is completed, severely limiting economic development options, they said. Then, once a plan is approved, other requirements come into play.

In addition, they pointed to a Bemidji State University study earlier this year showing that water clarity influences property values. The study looked at 1,205 residential property sales on 37 lakes in the upper Mississippi River watershed.

Before coming up with the general approach to paying for the effort, the group looked at dozens of alternatives.

"We struggled for hours on the issue of fairness versus simplicity,'' Johnson said. "We didn't see how we could get a complex system in place for this legislative session.''

Saying it's important to clean up the state's waters, group members agreed the resources aren't there to do that successfully and that it's better to proceed cooperatively rather than waste time with a more confrontational approach.

Other draft conclusions include:

The state should aim for a comprehensive assessment of state waterways every 10 years.

Voluntary clean-up options will be preferred over new regulation.

The MPCA, with other agencies, should develop an implementation plan for the entire process.

The impaired waters program should give preference to waterways that can be made part of larger projects.

At the MPCA's request, the process was designed and managed by the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that will not lobby for or against the eventual recommendation. The MPCA is providing staff and financial support.

"In other parts of the country, this has been a contentious process,'' said Peter Frosch, MEI's project manager. "Here in Minnesota, we have an opportunity to do it another way.''

"I think it's a critically important issue for the people of Minnesota and our abundance of water resources,'' said Kris Sigford, water quality program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "The blessing is the curse, in this sense. We are blessed with an abundance of water, more than any other state in the lower 48. With that comes the responsibility to be stewards for those waters.''

"From our perspective, (the impaired waters initiative) is our number-one priority,'' said Corrigan, the MPCA commissioner.


Many people agree Minnesota lakes and streams need cleaning, but how to pay for the effort is tricky. Under a proposal headed toward the Legislature, the following fees are under consideration:

$36 annual fee for all homeowners

$150 fee for businesses

Goal: raise $75 million a year

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