The 2015 Legislative Session yielded mixed results for Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and water quality. While the Legislature ultimately passed the Governor’s important riparian buffer initiative, the final Omnibus Environment bill unfortunately included several provisions that will weaken environmental protection in Minnesota.
On May 18, the Legislature raced to finish its work for the year before the constitutional deadline for ending the session, but ran out of time to pass two important bills: the bill that allocates Legacy Amendment funds and a bonding bill needed for capitol restoration work and flood mitigation. In addition, the Governor opposed three bills passed by the Legislature, including the omnibus environment bill, and subsequently vetoed these bills.
The Governor vetoed the environment bill because it included a number of provisions that would weaken the protection of water quality in the state, including provisions that suspended or delayed enforcement of phosphorus standards, created an amnesty provision for polluters, raided funds needed to make sure old landfills do not contaminate water, and eliminated the nearly 50 year old Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board.
After several weeks of negotiation, many of these provisions were removed, but the bill still eliminated the Citizens’ Board and included a new provision to exempt sulfide mining from waste disposal rules. A special session was called on June 11 despite that fact that there was not agreement on the environmental bill. Despite efforts by many legislators to remove the bad provisions, the final environment bill passed by the Legislature eliminated the Citizens’ Review Board and included the sulfide mining exemption.
While the Legislature’s inclusion of these provisions in the final environment bill was disappointing, the good news is that the Governor’s buffer initiative was approved and funding to combat aquatic invasive species (AIS) was left intact. A summary of the water issues Conservation Minnesota worked on this session is below.
Riparian buffers to protect water quality and reduce phosphorus
Although not as strong as the Governor’s initial proposal, the final bill makes important progress in requiring more buffers strips to protect our rivers and streams from sediment and nutrient run-off. The bill significantly speeds up adoption of the 50 foot buffer requirement for rivers and streams and applies a 16.5 foot buffer requirement for ditches to more areas than were previously required to have them. Most lakes are already covered by lakeshore rules and are not affected by the new buffer requirements. However, cleaner streams and ditches will mean the lakes they flow into will also benefit.
Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS)
Proposals to repeal or reduce AIS funding were ultimately rejected and funding will continue at current levels. The House Omnibus Environment bill originally cut the amount of AIS funding by 10%, despite the fact that the state has a budget surplus. Fortunately, the final bill restored full AIS funding.
A compromise was reached by stakeholders that replaces the AIS trailer decal with a new requirement of an “AIS affirmation” for all watercraft licenses (effective Jan. 1, 2016) and non-resident fishing licenses (effective March 1, 2016). There is no fee for the affirmation, but there is a $25 fine for failing to have an AIS affirmation displayed or available for inspection. In addition, the DNR now has authority to tag boats that have been found to be contaminated and require that the tag can only be removed by a proper decontamination station.
Protecting lakes and rivers from plastic microbeads
Plastic microbeads are tiny synthetic spheres that have been increasingly added to personal care products like soaps and toothpaste. They do not dissolve in water and are not filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. They enter our lakes and rivers where they absorb toxins like dioxins, and fish mistake them for food. Scientists are increasingly concerned that they are introducing toxins into the food chain. The Society of Conservation Biology has strongly urged that states enact a ban on the use of these materials.
The Senate passed a strong microbeads ban with bi-partisan support (SF 674). This bill has received a second reading in the House and is awaiting a final vote that could occur in the 2016 session. A weaker microbeads ban supported by industry was inserted in the Environment Omnibus bill but was successfully removed in conference committee.
Water levels and groundwater impacts
The final Omnibus Environment bill provides $100,000 for a study of the costs of augmenting water levels in White Bear Lake.
Fortunately, a provision that would weaken the DNR’s ability to protect water levels in trout streams was not included in the final bill.
The Legislature will re-convene in March 2016. The summer and fall break is a great time to tell your legislators that lakes and rivers are a priority for you. Thank them for protecting AIS funding. Tell them you are disappointed in provisions like the elimination of the Pollution Control Citizens’ Board that reduce transparency and weaken our ability to protect water. Ask them to continue to protect AIS funding and pass a strong ban on plastic microbeads early in the 2016 session.
Nothing matters more than the voices of citizens – thank you for your work on behalf of Minnesota!