Wild rice standard bill moves to the floor

The Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill affecting the state’s wild rice water quality standard to the Senate floor this week. The bill 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 currently 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 can be completed for an updated equation-based standard that evaluates individual wild rice water bodies and determines a protective standard tailored to individual lakes and streams. In January, the administrative law judge reviewed MPCA’s work and disapproved the equation-based standard, creating uncertainty about what happens next. The agency made some modifications and has asked the judge to reconsider.

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 to 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. The labor community is concerned about the potential loss of jobs in northern Minnesota.

Opponents of the bill argue 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, which will create more confusion and litigation. According to testimony from the scientific community, the current standard and the proposed equation-based standard are both scientifically solid and protective of wild rice. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe opposes the bill, stressing the significance of wild rice to Minnesota’s Ojibwe people.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has offered limited testimony due to legal constraints. Those constraints were lifted on March 28, and the agency weighed in for the first time this week with opposition to the bill. The MPCA cites many concerns, including creation of a conflict with federal law by removing the wild rice water quality standard without replacing it with something at least as protective, jeopardizing Minnesota’s delegation of the Clean Water Act program authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the bill’s potential for unintended consequences. The agency also says the bill invalidates water quality standards for irrigation, except in cases where there is a clear water appropriation for irrigation purposes.

The bill has been approved by four Senate committees and will be heard next on the Senate floor. (SF 2983)