Wild rice standard bill clears two committees

This week two committees advanced a bill that nullifies the state’s existing wild rice water quality sulfate standard and requires a new rulemaking process if the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is to move ahead with adoption of a wild rice standard.

Wild rice quality standards have been in a state of ambiguity since January, when an administrative law judge rejected a new wild rice standard proposed by the agency.  The standard in law is 10 mg/L, adopted in 1973, but a law enacted in 2015 prohibits MPCA from enforcing this standard until a rule-making process could be completed for an updated equation-based standard that evaluates individual wild rice water bodies and determines a protective standard for each.  In January, the administrative law judge reviewed MPCA’s work and disapproved the equation-based standard, creating uncertainty about what happens next.

The bill is sponsored by legislators from northern Minnesota and it removes the 10 mg/L standard as well as the equation-based standard, and directs the MPCA to start over with a new rulemaking process if there is to be a wild rice standard.  Many northern communities have been alarmed for some time about the potential costs of complying with the 10 mg/L standard that is in law (but not currently enforced).  They argue it could put businesses, mines, and other industries out of business, and impose huge costs on communities for upgrades to wastewater treatment.  Allowing either the 10 mg/L standard or the equation based standard to stand creates more ambiguity and economic uncertainty for these communities.

Opponents argued that ending the current rulemaking and removing the wild rice standard does not end uncertainty around this issue.  The federal government has adopted the 10 mg/L standard, and this legislation does not follow the federal process for repealing or revising it, resulting in more confusion and litigation. Testimony from the scientific community indicated the current standard and the proposed equation-based standard are both scientifically solid and protective of wild rice. Testimony from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe indicated strong opposition, stressing the significance of wild rice to Minnesota’s Ojibwe people.

The bill was amended in the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee to establish a work group with the Department of Natural Resources, tribal communities, and other stakeholders to study alternative solutions to restore and improve wild rice harvests, with a report to the legislature and tribal governments.

The bill passed 7-5 in the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee on Monday, and passed on a divided voice vote in State Government Finance and Policy and Elections on Tuesday.  It will be heard next in the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee. (S.F. 2983)