What is clean water worth?
By Dennis Lien
Minnesotans invariably say water quality is important
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
$36 annual fee for all homeowners
$150 fee for businesses
Goal: raise $75 million a year