Divvying up $168 million for water resources

By Patrick Sweeney

If you had $168 million to spend on studying, conserving and cleaning up Minnesota’s ground and surface waters, how would use the money? How much would you spend on educating the public? How much would you spend on bricks-and-mortar projects?

With a mandate, written into the state constitution, that new money from a sales tax increase approved by voters in November must not replace “traditional” funding for the environment, how do you determine what should be funded with other taxes and what can be paid for with the sales tax revenue?

Those are decisions the Legislature will face over the next several months as lawmaker divide up revenue from the sales tax increase. And it’s a task that the state’s Clean Water Council is eager to help perform.

The 23-member council spent five hours Monday listening to requests from state agencies, university researchers and non-profit environmental groups seeking a share of the new revenue.

The state agency requests, all presented informally because Gov. Tim Pawlenty has not yet given lawmakers his proposed budget, included:

 A Minnesota Department of Health appeal for $1.8 million over two years for a new research center devoted to the study of new contaminants for which water-quality standards have not been set, and for an additional $3.25 million to protect ground and surface waters used by public water systems.

 A Department of Agriculture proposal for $2 million to $5 million to look for acetochlor, a herbicide, in surface waters and to improve efforts to protect ground water from nitrates.

 A request from the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority for $17 million to $32 million to provide grants and loans to communities seeking to build or upgrade sewage treatment plants.

Cliff Aichinger, administrator of the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition, urged the Clean Water Council to recommend spending 4 percent to 8 percent of the $168 million on educational activities aimed at persuading property owners to reduce runoff from their homes and businesses.

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, made up of the Farm Bureau, corn and soybean growers’ groups and a number of other agriculture industry groups, asked the council to support spending $1 million a year to fund a University of Minnesota-led “Discovery Farms” program. The program, patterned after a similar one in Wisconsin, would study water quality on a small scale – individual fields and farms — at 10 to 12 sites around Minnesota.

All the funding proposals presented Monday are scheduled to be posted soon on the Clean Water Council’s web site.

The Clean Water Council, established by the Legislature in 2006, has assumed the responsibility – unless, or until, lawmakers decide differently – for recommending how the Legislature should spend revenue the new tax will produce for water projects over the next two years.

One-third of the total tax is earmarked in the state constitution to protect and improve water resources. The $168 million is an estimate of the portion that will be available for water projects. Of that amount, at least 5 percent much be spent to protect drinking water.

The constitutional amendment authorizing the sales tax increase also funds fish and game habitat, parks and trails, and the arts.

It is unclear how much attention legislators will pay to the Clean Water Council’s recommendations. Lawmakers last year created the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, a 12-member group named by legislative leaders and the governor, to recommend spending priorities for the tax proceeds designated for habitat. No such body exists in law to screen spending proposals for water projects.

But the Clean Water Council has undertaken that role, and it is possible the role will be formalized. State Rep. Paul Torkelson, a freshman Republican from St. James who currently is a member of the council, said Monday he planned to introduce legislation that would make the council the official screening body for water projects.

Torkelson acknowledged, though, that some lawmakers want to re-structure the council to give the Legislature a say in appointing its member if the council is to be designated as the official screening body. At present, the governor appoints 19 voting members of the council, and four state agencies provide non-voting members. Torkelson also said that, if legislation giving the council that role eventually is enacted, it probably would be with a Democratic-Farmer-Labor sponsor. Both the House and Senate have DFL majorities.

The Clean Water Council in December approved a biennial report to the Legislature, recommending $98 million in water spending over the next two years. On Jan. 26, the council is scheduled to make recommendations on an additional $70 million. Most of the proposals Monday dealt with that $70 million.

Citizens may comment on water-related spending by contacting the council’s staff, Jeff.Risberg@state.mn.us, until 5 p.m. on Jan. 14.