Timeline: Wild rice regulations in Minnesota

Red Lake cultivates 800 acres of wild rice.
Red Lake cultivates 800 acres of wild rice.
John Enger | MPR News

Updated: May 10, 2018 | Posted: March 25, 2018

Wild rice and the waters where it grows have been studied for nearly a century, leading policy makers to implement regulations aimed at protecting the official state grain. While a limit on sulfate discharge in wild rice waters has been on the books for more than 40 years, it's rarely been enforced. And an attempt to update it based on new science has failed.

Here's a summary of the story's twists and turns.


1930s and '40s: Biologist John Moyle, working for the Minnesota Department of Conservation, finds that no large wild rice stands grow in waters high in sulfate.

1973: State adopts a sulfate standard limit of 10 milligrams per liter to be discharged in waters that produce wild rice. The standard affects mining operations, industrial facilities and municipal wastewater treatment plants. The standard receives U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval.

2008: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources publishes a study identifying more than 1,200 bodies of water where wild rice grows.

February 2010: The EPA says Minnesota regulators must ensure PolyMet Mining's proposed copper-nickel mine meets the state's sulfate standard. That raises questions about to what extent the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is enforcing the standard for existing iron mines.

2010: The MPCA begins asking mining companies to document wild rice plants in lakes and streams where they discharge wastewater.

December 2010: The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce sues the state to overturn the state sulfate standard. The case is eventually dismissed but the Legislature starts taking action.

July 2011: Gov. Mark Dayton signs environment bill that includes a provision requiring the MPCA to do research on wild rice and complete rulemaking. The legislation provides $1.5 million for the wild rice study. Study results won't be released for another three years.

August 2011: U.S. Steel and MPCA strike a deal to clean up Minntac and limit pollution at Keetac, including a plan to reduce sulfate discharge.

May 2012: Ramsey County District Court upholds the state's 10 milligram standard after the Chamber of Commerce sues.

November 2012: MPCA announces it will begin listing waters around the state as impaired based on inability to sustain wild rice.

January 2014: Wild rice study is completed, but MPCA officials decide to hold back on releasing recommendations on what to do with the state's current sulfate standard, saying it's complicated. A peer review panel will be called to evaluate the study.

Feb. 26, 2014: Iron Range lawmakers meet with MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine about upcoming wild rice sulfate standard after reading news media reports about it.

March 2014: The MPCA says wild rice study confirms that sulfate affects wild rice but in complex ways, says it needs more time to determine what state's standards should look like.

October 2014: Peer review panel called on by the MPCA to evaluate the wild rice study says the work is scientifically valid, and MPCA officials continue work on policy recommendations for the state's sulfate standard.

December 2014: The EPA sends a letter to the MPCA saying U.S. Steel's draft revised Minntac permit has problems. The Minntac facility has long exceeded the state's sulfate standard.

February 2015: Several bills are introduced in the Legislature to prevent the MPCA from enforcing any sulfate standard for wild rice until rulemaking process is complete, including designating wild rice waters. House committee hears testimony from the MPCA and tribal leaders. The MPCA delays the release of Minntac's revised permit until it has announced a new approach to sulfate regulation in wild rice waters.

March 23, 2015: Gov. Mark Dayton tells MPR News the state's existing sulfate standard is outdated and will hurt mining operations in the state.

March 24, 2015: The MPCA announces a "new approach" to protecting the state's wild rice waters that uses a formula to calculate sulfate limits for each of the 1,300 lakes and rivers identified as wild rice waters.

January 2017: The MPCA holds open houses on the proposed new rule, based on the new lake-by-lake approach to regulation.

August 21, 2017: After taking public input, the MPCA releases a new rule to limit sulfate discharge in waters where wild rice grows. Environmental groups, Indian tribes and industry groups all criticize the rule.

Jan. 11, 2018: An administrative law judge rejects the MPCA's new sulfate rule, saying the change isn't justified and is too complicated for people to follow.

April 26, 2018: MPCA officials announce they'll go back to the drawing board on wild rice regulation. They say the science is accurate but still have work to do on how to apply it. Meanwhile, state lawmakers work to nullify the 1973 standard.

May 9, 2018: Gov. Mark Dayton vetoes a bill that would nullify the longstanding standard, forcing negotiations between his staff and legislative leaders in the final days of the session.