Environment and Agriculture

Investing in clean water

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, clean and affordable water is expected but cannot be taken for granted.  More than 40% of Minnesota’s waters are listed as impaired or polluted. Experts estimate that Minnesota communities will need $11 billion in water infrastructure improvements over the next two decades to replace and upgrade aging treatment facilities and to expand systems to accommodate economic growth. For the upcoming legislative session, legislators will consider the Governor’s bonding proposals to invest $167 million in the state’s water resources, as outlined below:

Safe drinking water

Water infrastructure: The Governor is proposing $80 million for the Water Infrastructure Funding (WIF) Program to help communities rehabilitate aging wastewater and drinking water infrastructure systems.  This program helps communities with existing water infrastructure needs.

Point Source Implementation Grant Program: Approximately 4,603 bodies of water in Minnesota are deemed impaired – not swimmable, fishable, or drinkable. The Governor proposes a $62 million investment in the Point Source Implementation Grant Program to ease the burden on local governments to finance needed water treatment plant upgrades, which improve water quality and reduce water costs for Minnesotans.

Clean water and drinking water revolving funds: The Governor proposes $25 million in funding to match federal grants and increase lending capacity for affordable, low-interest loans to help local governments update essential clean water and drinking water projects.

Clean lakes and rivers

CREP: Last year, Governor Dayton signed a landmark agreement under the federal/state Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to provide $350 million in federal funding directly to Minnesota landowners, which will work to protect waters across 60,000 acres in 54 Minnesota counties. As part of the agreement, Minnesota is required to commit $150 million in funding, with $116 million already dedicated. In 2018, the Governor proposes an additional $30 million toward the state’s portion of this innovative water quality program.

Road construction and wetland replacement: Wetlands provide valuable habitat for wildlife, filter out pollutants and sediment to protection downstream water quality in lakes and streams, recharge groundwater supplies, and lessen the impact of flooding. The Governor proposes $5 million to replace wetlands that have been lost to road construction across Minnesota.

Wastewater treatment system grants: The Governor proposes $5 million for grants to local governments to reduce the flow of clear water that enters wastewater systems and consumes capacity that is intended for economic growth. During heavy rains or flooding, this clear water can combine with wastewater to overwhelm treatment facilities, creating the risk of untreated wastewater discharge.

Wild Rice Standard

On January 11, an administrative law judge ruled that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to justify its proposed change to a controversial water quality standard for protecting wild rice. The current wild rice sulfate standard, adopted in 1973, limits discharges of sulfates into waters where wild rice grows to 10 milligrams per liter. Following more recent pressure by environmental groups and Indian tribes to enforce the rule, legislators in 2011 asked the MPCA to study the matter, which eventually resulted in an agency proposal for a new and flexible formula that would determine a standard appropriate for specific lakes and streams. Legislators may discuss a legislative solution to this longstanding controversy.

Road salt pollution

Every year, Minnesota puts about 730 million pounds of salt on the state’s roadways, some of which results in chloride pollution of lakes and rivers and corroded infrastructure. Legislation may be proposed to help reduce chloride pollution across the state resulting from salt use. This could include “smart salting” training, liability protection for road salt application, and/or funding for research and the development of chloride alternatives.

25% by 2025

In 2017, Governor Dayton created and Senator Ruud introduced a bipartisan bill with a goal that focuses on reducing water pollution 25% by the year 2025 (S.F. 1417). Over the summer, the Governor held ten regional meetings across the state to gather input and perspective on what it would take to accomplish this goal. This initiative is expected to come up in 2018.

LCCMR

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) has identified 65 projects totaling $45 million for its 2018 funding recommendations from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. These projects were selected by the commission through a competitive, multi-stage evaluation process, and will be considered next by the 2018 Legislature.

Outdoor Heritage Fund

The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has been working on its annual recommendations to the Legislature on how the Legacy Outdoor Heritage Fund should be used. Draft language for 2018 includes a total appropriation of $107.3 million, to be spent on projects related to prairies, forests, wetlands, and outdoor habitat.

Legacy Amendment process

Last October, Senator Osmek called for “serious reform” of the Legacy fund following the revelation that a professor living in Michigan received a $3,290 state arts grant through Minnesota’s Legacy Fund to develop a video game called “Thunderbird Strike,” which Osmek called an “eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.” He said the Legacy Fund process needs a “drastic overhaul” to ensure funds go to environment-related issues in Minnesota, not out-of-state video game developers. The video game was developed by Elizabeth LaPensee, a Native designer and Michigan State University professor, who was awarded an Artist Fellowship for her work, and substantially completed it prior to moving from Minnesota to Michigan.

Urban forest management

Dutch elm disease, oak wilt disease, drought, storms, and emerald ash borer (EAB) are among the risks that threaten Minnesota’s trees, and the costs for control and removal can put large pressure on city budgets. The League of Minnesota Cities is calling for an investment of at least $5 million annually for a state matching grant program specifically to assist cities with identification, removal, replacement, and treatment of EAB, as well as meeting the costs of preparing for and responding to other catastrophic urban forest problems.

2017 items that may resurface:

Plastic bag fees: A prohibition on local government plastic bags passed in the 2017 Jobs Bill, and last summer the City of Minneapolis came close to approving a $.05/bag fee. The fee was put on hold, with the city council studying options for litter reduction. This could prompt tighter language in 2018.

Golden shiner minnows: Legislation may re-appear to allow the importation of golden shiner minnows by licensed wholesale minnow dealers if they are certified free of certain illnesses and originate from a secure facility. The DNR is opposed, arguing it is difficult to distinguish these minnows from baby invasive carp, and allowing importation poses the threat of accidental spread of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS), a deadly infectious fish disease that is spreading from state to state.

Two-line fishing: A proposal may re-surface to allow anglers to use two lines when fishing in the open water season (except during a catch and release season) with the purchase of a second-line endorsement for $5, with half of the proceeds going toward walleye stocking. DNR officials estimate that allowing two fishing lines could increase the fish harvest by 30% to 40% and could force the agency to reduce fish limits.

Agriculture

Overtime for Agriculture Employees

A proposal brought forward last session would exempt agricultural workers who are hired through the H-2A visa program from the overtime requirements after 48 hours of work. Before businesses can qualify for the visa program they must publicly post any jobs its considering hiring H-2A workers for and must hire any Americans who qualify for the position first.

Farmers are having a difficulty finding workers because of shifting demographics which makes them more dependent on visa workers. Farmers argue that the overtime rule hurts small farmers. Additionally, it hurts the workers in the H-2A program because farmers will limit worker hours which results in less pay for those working as part of the program. Instead, farmers believe workers are more likely to go to states that do not require overtime for these workers because they can work longer hours and make more money.

The Minnesota Farmers Union and others fear that these workers have been, and will continue to be exploited. They fear that this change may provide another opportunity to limit workers’ rights and fairly compensate these workers who are much more vulnerable in comparison to other workers. As a result, the general concern is additional safeguards are needed to protect H-2A visa holders.

Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, and most recently, California (September 2016 – phased in starting in 2019) have implemented overtime for agricultural workers. This proposal will likely come forward again during the upcoming legislative session.

Rural Finance Authority

The Rural Finance Authority expended all the funds ($35 million) appropriated last session. This session the Department of Agriculture is seeking $20 million in additional resources for the program. The money used for the program lowers the interest rates on loans issued to qualifying farmers.

While the Rural Finance Authority (RFA) has the ability to issue loans directly to farmers, it usually partners with private lenders. The RFA purchases a portion of the loan from the lender and charges a lower interest rate than the market would allow. This results in a blended rate that is lower than what is typically available in the private market.

Agriculture Nuisance Claims

A controversial proposal to limit agricultural litigation introduced last session failed in committee but could come forward again during the upcoming legislative session. Under Minnesota law, after two years, if certain conditions are met, an agricultural operation can no longer be considered a nuisance. However, large facilities were exempt from this provision making them subject to a nuisance claim indefinitely. Some livestock producers believe that this is unfair because they could be operating within the confines of their permit and the law but could still be subject to litigation.

The proposal is controversial because its limits the ability of neighboring property owners of large agricultural facilities to seek restitution because of the strong odors emitted by these facilities. Some property owners have said in committee when this bill was heard last session that the smells associated with these facilities can be so intolerable it makes their properties uninhabitable.

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