Lawmakers find money for White Bear groundwater problems, other environmental issues

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Receding water levels
Docks extend into White Bear Lake, where water levels have steadily decreased over the last decade, in White Bear Lake, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News, File

When the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its work last week, environmental groups claimed several victories.

The state will soon have a ban on triclosan in consumer soaps and body washes. The Legislature created a new research center for terrestrial invasive species. There's also beefed up recycling goals for the Twin Cities metro -- and some money to support the new goals.

Groundwater and the groundwater sustainability issues in the northeast Twin Cities metro area also received some attention.

But a plan that business leaders and White Bear Lake-area lawmakers supported to pipe Mississippi River water into the lake did not go forward. Instead, lawmakers set aside money for a plan to be determined following a Metropolitan Council study.

Below are some highlights of environmental initiatives the DFL-controlled Legislature passed. They await decisions by Gov. Mark Dayton, who hasn't yet acted on the budget bill and has line item veto power.

White Bear Lake and NE metro groundwater

A multi-million dollar proposal to pipe water into White Bear Lake morphed into a proposed $800,000 study to design an augmentation system for the lake. But lawmakers ended up with $400,000 toward designing a solution "to address regional water supply and sustainability issues, including enhancing surface waters."

In addition, there are a few smaller initiatives aimed at the groundwater management area the Department of Natural Resources has set up for the north and east metro. One looks at stormwater capture and another focuses on landscaping best practices.

Beneath the Surface, a special report on groundwater

"We know we have to look at multiple solutions," said Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL- Maplewood, who had supported the augmentation study.

Studies have shown water from the lake drains into the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, which many suburbs tap for their drinking water. During especially dry years, White Bear Lake can lose a lot of its water, Fischer said.

"If we go just to augmenting and don't address moving people from groundwater to surface water we could end up in that situation again where it's running out faster than we could have any opportunity to put in," he said.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce that had also pushed for augmentation, said he was satisfied with the outcome.

"Everything being done this year is to understand this even more," he said. "Bring everything together and let's understand the facts, because the emotion of this is huge."

Water levels on the lake have been down enough to hurt tourism, Kramer said.

"We've got a lake that's the premier economic and tourism lake in the east metro that's been down for now going on nine years," he said. "It's just awkward to explain in the 'Land of 10,000 Lakes.' "

Those who had urged against money for augmentation said they were also satisfied with the final bill language on White Bear Lake. Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River said it was a "whole lot better" than the augmentation plan, which he said could set a dangerous precedent because other lakes might then start seeking money to restore water levels.

Invasive species

One of the bigger items in the supplemental budget bill is nearly $4 million for a new terrestrial invasive species research center at the University of Minnesota.

Map: Aquatic invasive species spread across Minnesota

Among items in the budget bill, "it will have one of the biggest impacts statewide," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House environment finance committee. "Our farms, our parks, our forests and our prairies are being invaded by a new generation of weeds and pests and pathogens, so the U is our best hope right now for containing these invasives."

The money will go toward hiring a director and supporting graduate student research.

Recycling

Recycling and composting goals for the Twin Cities metro area will go from 50 percent of waste to 75 percent by 2030, under legislation passed by the Legislature. The beefed up goal also comes with some additional dollars -- $4 million -- for counties to manage recycling and composting programs.

The legislation also includes mandatory recycling for professional and college sports facilities and for metro-area commercial buildings that collect four cubic yards or more of trash a week.

"This is perhaps the most important step forward we've taken as a state or region in terms of recycling since 1990," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who sponsored the recycling legislation. "When we do create waste we ought to be recycling it. This is so helpful to our economy and our environment."

Crop research

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups, had pushed for money to develop new cover and perennial crops that could be planted in corn and soybean fields. The partnerships aim to help hold the soil and water in place after the harvest and before spring planting to reduce the amount of runoff into Minnesota's lakes and rivers.

Agricultural runoff has been a big problem in parts of the state, including the Minnesota River Valley, where sediment and nutrients have polluted surface water.

"Agriculture is the leading contributor to surface water pollution in the state," said Steve Morse, the partnership's executive director. "These new systems will be designed to prevent most of that."

The "Forever Green" project received $1 million - seen as a starting point - in the budget bill.

Triclosan

Antibacterial soap and bodywash containing the chemical won't be available on store shelves starting in January 2017. Minnesota is the first state with a triclosan ban.

A University of Minnesota study showed the chemical was building up in some lakes over time. Although threats to human health are still being studied, advocates say triclosan soaps aren't any more effective than plain soap.

Compromise language in the bill means commercial sale of soaps that contain triclosan sold by companies like Ecolab can continue.

Friends of the Mississippi River made a triclosan ban its top priority this session.

"It's a message to manufacturers whether they're in Minnesota or not that triclosan is on its way out," said Clark, the group's director.

DNR authority on water permits

The Legislature gave the DNR more authority to penalize those who pump groundwater without a permit. An MPR News investigation found more than 200 agricultural irrigation wells operating without a permit from 2008 to 2012.

Bonding money

The DNR received about $63 million for projects ranging from fixing up state park facilities to acquiring land for new trails. There's also $14 million for a campground and other facilities at the new Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota.

"The governor's fishing opener is going to up there next year, so hopefully by that time there will be a large amount of that work done," said Bob Meier, the DNR's chief lobbyist.

Meier said the overall total for bonding projects was less than what the DNR had requested, but he said the department appreciates it.

"We have $2 billion worth of assets that we need to repair, so it doesn't get us where we need to go but it keeps us moving forward," he said.

Shooting sports facilities grants

The DNR will administer a $2 million grant program for shooting sports facilities. Trap shooting is the fastest growing high school sport, according to the Minnesota State High School League, and many facilities need upgrades.

Meier said growth in trap shooting has been "explosive."

"It's now a letter sport where boys and girls are competing," he said.

The money for the trap shooting grants comes from the Game and Fish Fund, which comes from hunting and fishing license sales.

Help for pollinators

The Legislature set aside $150,000 for beekeepers who suffer major losses due to pesticides. There's also a bill that says nurseries and garden centers can't market plants as beneficial to pollinators if they contain certain insecticides.

Unfinished business

The Toxic Free Kids Act was one of the governor's priorities, but the Legislature left it out of final bills. The bill would have required manufacturers to disclose the use of certain chemicals in children's products.

GOP Senate leaders said Republicans agreed to help pass the bonding bill if DFLers dropped the legislation.

But the issue isn't going away, Wagenius said.

"The advocates have told me they'll be back, and for a state that wants to have the world's best work force, it has to come back," she said.

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