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Clean Water Accountability Act expected to pass Legislature this week

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Rose Lake
Rose Lake in northern Minnesota in a photo taken Sept. 5, 2012. Forty percent of Minnesota's lakes and rivers are too polluted to fish or swim in. Minnesota's current approach to water cleanup is not working effectively, and a measure is expected to pass in the state Legislature to ensure better accountability.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR

The Legislature is expected to pass legislation, the Clean Water Accountability Act, that would require state agencies to target water clean-up efforts more effectively. Forty percent of Minnesota's lakes and rivers are too polluted to fish or swim in.

Federal law requires all states to make plans to clean up their water. But critics and some state officials agree that Minnesota's current approach is not working effectively. Three lakes and 12 river segments have been cleaned up in the 15 years the state has been working on it.

The biggest problem these days is not industry pipes dumping nasty chemicals, but non-point source pollution -- pollution that is carried in rain and snowmelt from roads, parking lots, roofs and farm fields.

By definition, non-point source pollution is harder to identify and control.  Critics say the state could do better. And with millions of dollars on tap from the Clean Water Legacy Fund, environmental groups say it is time to work smarter.

Gene Merriam, president of the Freshwater Society and a former DNR commissioner and state legislator, said when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports pollution problems in a given body of water, it stops short of getting to the most important point.

"...When they're supposed to identify a source -- the source is 'upstream.' Well, of course it's upstream; where else would it be coming from?"

"The PCA identifies a problem with sediment overload, and when they're supposed to identify a source -- the source is 'upstream,'" Merriam said.  "Well, of course it's upstream; where else would it be coming from?"

Without identifying specific farm fields or paved areas, Merriam said there's no way to design an effective clean-up plan.

But modern technology allows researchers to pinpoint the problems, said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. 

"These are the places where you've got blowouts of stream banks or catastrophic failures of ravines that are dumping huge quantities of sediment into the river," Clark said. "These are the places where you've got straight pipe septics going into the river, or feedlots that are not buffered, or stream banks where cropping is happening right up to the edge of stream."

The state needs that level of detail to set priorities and invest limited dollars more effectively, Clark said.

"If you're going to target incentives for farmers to install buffers, you need to know where's the best place to put the buffers given the impairment in this watershed," he said.

The MPCA has been thinking along the same lines. The agency is readying to convert to a new approach, complete with the obligatory acronym -- WRAPS -- which stands for Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies.

Assessing entire watersheds rather than individual lakes or stream segments will give a more accurate picture of where the problems are, said  Rebecca Flood, MPCA assistant commissioner for water policy.

"We can approach the fixes that need to be accomplished if we look at all the segments of a flowing stream rather than one portion that appears to have a pollution problem," Flood said. "If we look at a lake, we can look at the whole area surrounding the lake in order to devise and target the best solution."

At the same time, the Board of Water and Soil Resources, which distributes money to local governments for conservation work, is also shifting to a watershed-based planning approach.

The Clean Water Accountability Act requires timelines and benchmarks to measure progress in cleaning up lakes and rivers. Advocates say it sets a good framework to ensure that taxpayer dollars spent from the Legacy fund result in real progress and cleaner water.

The Senate is expected to take up the matter as part of the Legacy funding bill this week. The Legacy bill passed the House Friday.