U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar defended her bill Friday to allow the construction of a new bridge over the St. Croix River, arguing that her proposal would not violate federal law protecting scenic rivers.
Klobuchar's bill seeks to exempt the bridge from the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. She said the law allows for exemptions to be granted, although she acknowledged that such requests are rare. She said her legislation would "keep the act pristine."
"While the act is incredibly important, it is also very important that Stillwater get a new bridge," she said.
The federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, co-authored by former U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale in 1968, protects more than 11,000 miles of 166 rivers in 38 states. The upper St. Croix River was one of the original eight rivers protected by the law. The federal designation now includes about 250 miles of the St. Croix River, stretching from Taylors Falls, Minn. to the Mississippi River.
Mondale has said amending the law to build a new bridge over the river would set "a dangerous precedent." But fellow Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton supports a new bridge.
Klobuchar said the scenic river area already has huge, man-made structures within view of the historic lift bridge.
"If you go out on the bridge and you look across the river, there's a huge power plant with a huge tower with steam coming out. That is where the new bridge is proposed to go," she said. "And when you look at that, you realize that this isn't exactly a residential area or a scenic moment. This is where there is a big power plant, and I think they deliberately put the bridge right by there so that they could have the bridge in an area that would be least intrusive."
The Democratic senator also distanced herself from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. The Republican congresswoman has proposed legislation that would authorize a four-lane bridge over the objections of the National Park Service.
Klobuchar also discussed flood preparedness during her conversation Friday with MPR News' Tom Crann. An edited transcript of the interview is below.
Tom Crann: You're in Stillwater today. What are you telling people about your support for a bridge over the St. Croix?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: Well first of all, I have all the respect for Walter Mondale. He's an icon, and I'm so glad that he worked so hard to get the Scenic Rivers Act passed. It's a bill that I have long supported and it's very important to keep it in place.
The law, however, provides for an exemption. It's rarely used, but I'm going to be introducing legislation that uses that exemption, and it ... sets the bar high and it says that if you can pass an exemption through Congress and it's approved by the Secretary of Transportation, that you can get an exemption for certain circumstances.
And while the act is incredibly important, it is also very important that Stillwater get a new bridge. Anyone that goes over there, and I just challenge people to go and visit that bridge right now, especially during rush hour. You can have traffic that is congestion lined up all the way to the top of the hill where the church is for nearly a half mile. You have a lot of exhaust coming from those cars along busy streets in Stillwater, pedestrian streets.
You've got an old bridge that was built in 1931 with rusty girders and you literally can pick some of the rust off. I wouldn't suggest anyone do that, but you can. And so I think everyone knows that we need a new bridge, and the question is what kind of bridge.
Crann: Let me ask, senator, if I could, about that. And there are a couple of different competing ideas or proposals about what sort of bridge, and I wonder where you would come down on. There's one by
Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who I believe would want a larger highway bridge, and then Fourth District DFLer Betty McCollum wants a smaller one that's more in line with replacing the one you're talking about. Where do you come down?
Klobuchar: Well, first of all, Representative Bachmann's legislation is different than mine. ... (T)he bill she introduced last year doesn't follow the (Scenic Rivers) act. It just removes the act for that part of the river. My exemption would actually follow the act.
But let me make clear, my exemption would allow for the bridge plan which the locals and Governor Dayton support ... You can call it a larger bridge, but it's really the only plan that has gone through the processes for approval. If the governor were to decide to do another bridge, nothing in my bill would mandate him to do, the existing bridge plan, but if he were to do a different bridge, it could take at least a decade to get that plan approved. And that's why there is I think a strong argument for going forward with the bridge the governor wants to do, but nothing in my legislation would prohibit him from going forward with another plan.
I also think it's worth for people to go out to Stillwater ... If you go out on the bridge and you look across the river, there's a huge power plant with a huge tower with steam coming out. That is where the new bridge is proposed to go. And when you look at that, you realize that this isn't exactly a residential area or a scenic moment. This is where there is a big power plant, and I think they deliberately put the bridge right by there so that they could have the bridge in an area that would be least intrusive.
Crann: Just to clarify — you see it possible to move forward with your legislation that would seek an exemption, but would still build a bridge within the spirit of the law ... The St. Croix would still be protected as a scenic riverway.
Klobuchar: Yes, my legislation would keep the act in place, keep the act pristine, but use the exemption process, which I will admit is rarely used, but actually is set forth in the legislation. My bill has the support of the Interior Department. We've been working with the Interior Department, but I do want to make clear that the governor has put his support for this existing bridge plan. I think it makes some sense, so that is the bridge that would be moved forward with this legislation, but nothing would stop him or anyone else from paying for or proposing a smaller bridge, but the legislation would allow him to go forward with the bridge that he has pledged his support her.
Crann: What do you hear from people in Stillwater about this issue of the bridge? What do they want?
Klobuchar: Well, I stopped by a few cafes to shake hands and talk to people. Everywhere you go, people want a new bridge ... For decades they've had these cars stopped off, congesting. It's hard for people to just walk by and enjoy the beautiful roads in Stillwater. It's hard for people who have jobs to go back and forth between Minnesota and Wisconsin. So they've always wanted this new bridge.
So I figure if the governor's behind this, the people in the local community are for the most part behind it, I at least want to allow them to go forward. The issue is: are they going to be able to get the funding. The governor says there's $250 million that has been set aside for quite a while. Wisconsin's going to have to put some money in, so that's a big if, and all those things have to happen. My job is to give them the tools to do a bridge, and they can decide which bridge they want to do.
Crann: You're in Stillwater, also yesterday I believe in St. Paul. You've been touring around looking at flood preparedness. Are you pretty confident that everything is in place that needs to be in place for impending flooding?
Klobuchar: It is so impressive what the people of our state have done. You know you have senior citizens stuffing sandbags next to people in orange jumpsuits that are on work squads. People have come out in droves to make sure that levies are built, that sandbags are filled, so we are ready.
The issue is how much is Mother Nature going to give us, how tough is this going to be and where's it going to hit. This is projected, especially today, the Red River Valley was projected to go up again, Red River, and so we're concerned about that area.
Some of the smaller towns I visited, like Carver and Delano, you know can just take a few logs to plug something up under a bridge and they can have major flooding that goes into their business district. So those are my major concerns. From what I've seen in St. Paul and Stillwater, they've had these floods before. They've got major levies that they put in place. They've got parks that they allow to flood, but some of the smaller towns, as well as the Red River, is what I'm most concerned about today.
Crann: You say you're impressed in St. Paul and Stillwater. Along the Red River, though, is it a different issue? Are you more concerned that everything isn't where it needs to be in that regard?
Klobuchar: Well, no one's prepared better than Fargo and Moorhead. They literally have millions and millions of sandbags. They've been working on this for months. The issue is the river is so ferocious up there. I was there during the last flooding two years ago and it came so close to going over the sandbags, and that's what they're worried about.
Even just a few weeks ago, it was projected that there was a 35 percent chance that the flood could be worse than it was in 2009. And so the issue here is that they have moved some homes, which is helpful. Moorhead has moved 100 homes out of the flood plain. Austin did that a few years ago, and they've been protected ever since. They created parks, so that's some of the mitigation that you can do that they've been doing in Moorhead. There has to be a better long-term plan in place for Fargo-Moorhead involving some retention, a diversion, and that we're working on as well.
Crann: I want to ask you about the diversion. What can you tell us about the status of that, about the diversion plan for the Red River Valley? This is the third flood we're looking at here now in as many years. Isn't it time to get this funded and get it done?
Klobuchar: Well it is, and the Army Corps has come out with a plan to have the diversion go through North Dakota. This is going to be a combination of state and federal funding. The bulk of the water is from North Dakota, so we believe the bulk of the funds will most likely, when the split between the states, be from North Dakota, but hopefully we will be able to obtain federal funding as well.
The thing I've been working on as a member of the Ag committee with Senator Hoeven, (R-ND) and Congressman Peterson, (D-MN) Senator Franken (D-MN) is the retention issue where you can actually retain water for periods of time over land, and then that water will later drain off and still can be used, depending on the purpose, for farmland. So we've been working on that as well as a solution that can work hand in hand with the diversion that can be done sooner.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)