Cities, environmentalists unhappy with new water quality rules

Fishing at Lake Elmo
Lake Elmo Park Reserve Fishing Pier Dad and son Jim Timal and his 6-year-old son Jack fishing at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve fishing pier.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Each state is supposed to take a serious look at its water quality rules every three years, according to federal rules. The MPCA's rule revision has been six years in the making. But MPCA officials say it's worth the wait.

The biggest change is the establishment of nutrient standards for lakes. Everyone knows too much phosphorus can cause algae blooms. Until now, the MPCA was using ad hoc criteria to limit phosphorus in effluent from wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities. But now the criteria will become legal standards.

The agency is setting a limit on phosphorus in the lake water itself, not just in the effluent. That limit varies, depending on where the lake is. In the north, where lakes are clear and cold, the limits are more stringent than in the central part of the state. And lakes in the south and west, where nearly all the land is given over to agriculture, have a much laxer limit.

"The lake is a reflection its watershed. What's going on in watershed is going to determine quality of the lake that you have," according to Marvin Hora, the MPCA administrator who supervised the revisions.

A hand full of fertilizer that contains phosphorus and runs off into area lakes and rivers.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

He says the standards provide a benchmark, a target to shoot for in any clean-up effort.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says the MPCA has taken a big step forward. But the Center's water quality program director, Kris Sigford, says she's got problems with the rules.

She says the standards in farm country are too low to begin with, and she worries about new, looser rules for setting site-specific standards -- that is, standards for an individual lake that are higher or lower than for other lakes in the region.

"It seems as if they can just decide by fiat to loosen the standard without any demonstration of the scientific basis for doing so, and the public will be who loses through that process."

The MPCA acknowledges that deviating from the normal standard for individual lakes usually results in weaker protection. But Marvin Hora says the agency isn't in the business of writing off individual lakes. It's just trying to streamline the process. Some lakes are not going to get much cleaner, Hora says.

"There are irreversible changes. As population grows, and as development occurs, those population changes and those developments aren't going to go away. We can't expect all of our waters to be at the same quality they were 100 or 200 years ago."

The agency is facing criticism from the other end of the spectrum, too. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has been strongly resisting the new effluent rules. Instead of analyzing particular discharges to see if they affect the water, the state is applying a one-size-fits-all rule, according to Steve Nyhus, an attorney who represents the group. He says two cities are good examples of why that's a bad approach.

"The city of Moorhead discharges into the Red River. Phosphorus that's discharged into the Red River does not grow algae, basically because the river is so turbid. And requiring them to meet a that one-milligram-per-liter phosphorus limit simply doesn't make any sense," he says.

Winona discharges into the Mississippi River, where its effluent is a tiny drop in the water, Nyhus says.

But the MPCA staunchly defends its proposed new rules. Commissioner Brad Moore says the phosphorus limit is based on sound science, and so are other provisions, including limits on two pesticides, acetochlor and metolachlor.

"The acetochlor standard, that'll be the first one in the nation. The mercury tissue standard, that's tighter than national standard for EPA, so there are plenty of examples where this rule moves Minnesota forward and in a number of areas makes us first."

The new standards only apply to lakes. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been urging states to set standards for rivers and streams as well. But the MPCA concentrated on lakes first. The agency says it can develop standards for rivers in the next three years.

The Citizens Board will hear comments from interested groups, but all sides expect them to approve the rules as proposed by staff.

The rules then move for approval to the federal EPA, where interested groups have a chance to make their views known again.

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