Summer 2013 Legislative Update

By Deb Swackamer

While the news from Washington was unpleasant, the news from St Paul was much better. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) decided to keep 50% of our current fiscal year funding as part of the sequester budget cuts, to stave off furloughs of their employees. It meant we could not fund all our research projects, and affected student funding. In addition, the USGS cancelled this year's national competitive grants program. We are working hard to have the Congress reinstate full funding of the national Water Resources Research Institute program in FY14. Any support you might offer to your senators or representative would be appreciated!

Back in Minnesota, we just finished the legislative session. A number of significant policy changes are worth noting. The Legislature has changed the water appropriations permitting process by requiring all well applications to be reviewed by the DNR prior to the start of drilling. This is a logical change to a previously well-intended but illogical process that required the well driller to register the well with Minnesota Department of Health, then apply for a DNR appropriations permit after drilling the well. The DNR has also received funds to make the permit application process electronic, and to increase their compliance of existing permits. Most importantly, the legislature has directed the DNR to review permits in the context of cumulative impacts and sustainability requirements.

The DNR also received additional funds to enhance and accelerate their monitoring efforts regarding groundwater resources. They will be implementing their strategy of Groundwater Management Areas, and the first such area has recently been identified. It will include White Bear Lake and the surrounding area impacted by declines in the Prairie du Chien - Jordan aquifer complex in the north Metro region. The USGS and DNR will also be doing more research on groundwater-surface water interactions in the area.

Another change in permitting is that silica sand mines within one mile of a designated trout stream are now required to obtain a permit from the DNR, which includes a hydrological evaluation. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture now has their Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program in state law, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilisek announced the four pilot watersheds at a press conference held at the University of Minnesota last week, with Governor Dayton, Senator Franken, and Commissioner Fredrickson by his side. The four watersheds are Elm Creek, Middle Sauk River, Whiskey Creek, and Whitewater River.

The Legislature has passed the Minnesota Water Accountability Act, directed to activities of the MPCA. It puts the Watershed Restoration, Assessment, and Prevention Strategies (WRAPS) that the MPCA rolled out this year into law and requires them for every eight digit HUC watershed. The WRAPS require a watershed approach that integrates the assessments of chemical, biological, and physical condition, as well as requires strategies for restoration and prevention. This holistic approach to watershed management is groundbreaking and puts us well ahead of other states.

Finally, the Legislature passed the Legacy Funds appropriation bill, including the outlay of investments from the Clean Water Fund, for FY14 and FY15. The Legislature made several changes to the recommendations from the Clean Water Council * and those in the Governor's budget. Funds for drinking water protection were increased, while investments in grants programs focused on non-point source implementation were decreased (mostly affecting BWSR, and to some extent MDA). A last minute amendment to the bill banned coal tar sealant for asphalt surfaces throughout the state, making us the second state to do so.

* (Full disclosure: Deb is appointed to the Clean Water Council)