Attacks seen on state, U.S. environment rules

Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Environmentalists charge legislative assault
It started with proposals to cut regulatory red tape and to repeal a long-standing ban on new nuclear power plants. Soon, there was a push to lift restrictions on new coal-fired power plants. Later, Minnesota legislators voted to ease water-quality standards protecting wild rice.

“This is really an unraveling of Minnesota’s outdoors legacy — on multiple fronts, from energy to water to forestry to parks,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environment Partnership, a coalition of outdoors and environment groups.

As the 2011 Minnesota Legislature passes the halfway point, there’s growing discontent within environment and conservation communities. The reason? They see lawmakers — especially Republicans — systematically rolling back or weakening environmental protections.

Few days go by, they said, when something threatening doesn’t emerge. With strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate and solid discipline so far within ranks, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton is seen as their best, and perhaps only, option for an effective defense.

Rep. Denny McNamara, a scrappy Republican from Hastings, has taken a leadership role in the new order, unabashedly pushing parts of the GOP agenda through committees. The outdoors enthusiast and House environment committee chairman said many of his Republican colleagues are simply trying to make it easier for business in a tough economy, are offering provocative ideas and approaches,  or are simply removing confusion in legislation.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press

Former EPA leaders see retreat on environment
In a Washington Post column, William Ruckelshaus and Christine Todd Whitman –  former administrators of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Republican presidents – lament the attack they say the current Congress is making on decades of progress against air and water pollution.

 Read their column in the Post.
–The Washington Post

Find a lake – on your phone
Minnesota’s great outdoors used to be ‘off the grid.’ You left the web, email and so on far behind while camping, boating, fishing or hunting. It’s good to unplug once in a while, right?

 Now with wireless data networks blanketing the state, outdoorsy types don’t have to be without Internet on their iPhones or Android smartphones. And this, believe it or not, can be a good thing. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources certainly thinks so. It is increasingly encouraging the use of smartphones by providing apps, mobile-friendly websites and other mobile-device resources designed to enhance the outdoor experience.
 –The St. Paul Pioneer Press

 Mondale blasts St. Croix bridge plans
Amending a federal law to allow a new bridge over the St. Croix River amounts to a repeal of protection for scenic rivers nationwide, said former U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, who was a co-author of the 1968 bill that protects those waterways.

 “I’m against it. This bridge as proposed should not be built,” said Mondale, now a Minneapolis attorney who was President Jimmy Carter’s vice president.

 “I think that people ought to be soberly thinking about whether they want to assault the uniqueness and majesty of that river. This is establishing a dangerous precedent of the whole river system.”

 Mondale’s concerns put him at odds with key Minnesota leaders — Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both fellow Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican.

 Never in the history of the 43-year-old law protecting the nation’s most scenic rivers has Congress allowed a new bridge over one of them. But Bachmann had introduced legislation to do just that, while Klobuchar is planning similar legislation that would accomplish the same thing. Dayton recently said he also favors a new bridge.
–The Star Tribune

 Ocean winds and waves increase
Ocean wind speeds and wave heights around the world have increased significantly over the past quarter of a century, according to Australian research that has given scientists their first global glimpse of the world’s rising winds and waves.

 Published in the journal Science, the research – the most comprehensive of its kind ever undertaken – used satellite data collected from 1985 to 2008.

 It shows the extreme wave height off the coast of south-west Australia today is six metres on average, more than a metre higher than in 1985.

 “That has all sorts of implications for coastal engineering, navigation and erosion processes,” said Alex Babanin, an oceanographer at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, and co-author of the paper.
–Sydney Morning Herald

 Got a deficit? Cut down some trees
Seeking another way to plug a looming budget deficit, at least one Minnesota House Republican has trained his eyes on state-owned black walnut trees.

 A Republican-controlled environmental panel directed the Department of Natural Resources to assess the value of black walnut trees in Frontenac and Whitewater state parks, log the ones considered suitable for harvest and put the money into its parks budget. 

“It’s, as far as I know, the most valuable tree that we have in Minnesota,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who pitched the idea after noting that acquaintances told him about the trees and their revenue-raising potential.

 The directive, approved mainly along party lines, was put into a larger House bill providing money for environment and natural resources operations and projects. It and a comparable Senate measure slash spending and are headed to their respective floors, where they’re expected to pass as legislative bargaining chips in a developing budget showdown with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton over solving a projected $5 billion deficit.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press

Wisconsin phosphorus rules in play
Members of the Natural Resources Board urged Gov. Scott Walker to reconsider his plan to roll back rules that protect Wisconsin lakes and streams from phosphorus pollution.

The board, which sets policy for the state Department of Natural Resources, approved the regulation last year. The rule sets limits on levels of phosphorus, a nutrient that gets into water from fertilizer and human waste and spurs the growth of weeds and toxic blue-green algae. At the time it was passed, the regulation was described as one of the most important water protection laws in Wisconsin since the federal Clean Water Act.

Matt Moroney, deputy secretary of the DNR, told the board that Walker intends to rewrite the rule and that agency staffers are working with the governor’s office on the proposed changes. 

According to the initial proposal, the numeric standard for phosphorus in the rule passed last year would be replaced with a so-called “narrative” standard, which is not a number but instead a description of water quality. Walker also proposes that phosphorus regulations could be no more strict than standards set by neighboring states.
–Wisconsin State Journal

 Road salt tainting our waters
The sound of water gurgling through storm sewers is the promise of a spring that’s been a long time coming. 

But it’s also the sound of a toxic legacy that for decades has been quietly building in lakes and streams around the Twin Cities — road salt. 

The fish, bugs and other wildlife that live in the lakes pay a price for winter traffic safety when the snow melts. This winter, the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) started a four-year project to figure out which Twin Cities’ lakes hold too much chloride, a primary ingredient in salt, and what it will take to keep urban waters healthy. 

But the far more difficult task will be changing long-held beliefs about what it means to be a good citizen in a northern city. After all, most people in Minnesota, from homeowners to city officials, feel pretty strongly about keeping the sidewalks and roads clear and safe in the winter — even if it means putting down a lot more salt than is necessary.
–The Star Tribune

Mining backers seek weaker wild rice rules
High-profile mining projects proposed for northern Minnesota are prompting a fight at the Legislature over water quality rules for wild rice.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has only recently begun enforcing a law, on the books for nearly 40 years, that limits how much sulfate can go into waters where wild rice is found. Officials say the MPCA didn’t enforce the rule for much of that time because the agency didn’t have evidence that sulfates from iron mines or any other operations were entering lakes and streams.

Prompted by industry, members of Legislature are trying to put a stop to the agency’s enforcement of the law. It began applying the standard two years ago, when taconite plants on the Iron Range wanted to expand.

The discharges from copper-nickel mines several companies want to build in the area are expected to have an even higher level of sulfate than taconite mines.
–Minnesota Public Radio

 Iron mining firm eyes northern Wisconsin
A company outlined a proposal to conduct test drilling for a proposed open pit mine near the border of Ashland and Iron counties – a move that could lead to the first such mine in Wisconsin since 1997.

Gogebic Taconite asked the state Department of Natural Resources for permission to drill eight exploratory holes to test for the presence of iron ore.

If approved, Gogebic Taconite would still need to go through an extensive review process that could take several years, DNR officials said.

The issue is likely to pit the interests of environmental protection and economic development.

Water from the site flows through the sensitive Kakagon and Bad River sloughs – the largest such vegetative areas of Lake Superior.

Ultimately, the company and its parent, the Cline Group, would invest more than $1 billion to extract iron ore over the next 35 years in an area near Mellen and Upson, said William T. Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite.
–The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

UW-Madison water scientist honored
University of Wisconsin-Madison limnologist Stephen Carpenter has been awarded the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize, the world’s most prestigious award for water-related activities.

 The award, which comes with $150,000 and a crystal sculpture, honors individuals and organizations “whose work contributes broadly to the conservation and protection of water resources and to improved health of the planet’s inhabitants and ecosystems.”

The award will be conferred in August by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in a royal award ceremony at Stockholm City Hall.

 “It s a great honor to be selected,” says Carpenter, the Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Zoology at UW-Madison. “So many great people have received this award, and there are so many great people who could have received it. I am surprised.”
–UW-Madison News Release

 Court narrows Wisconsin DNR power
The Wisconsin Supreme Court says the state does not have the authority to determine whether state-issued water pollution permits comply with federal law.

The court’s 5-2 ruling comes in the case of environmentalists who argued a permit was improperly issued in 2005 to Georgia-Pacific’s Broadway Mill in Green Bay.

The court says the state Department of Natural Resources was not required under Wisconsin law to hold a hearing on complaints that the permit failed to comply with the federal Clean Water Act related to phosphorous discharge levels.

The ruling reverses a 2008 appeals court decision that said DNR could determine whether state-issued permits comply with federal law.
–The Associated Press