Report: Too soon to gauge impact of Clean Water Fund spending

Ducks take advantage of a floating barrier.
The state pollution control agency has spent the largest share of its Clean Water Fund dollars, about $54 million, on contracts for activities such as testing water quality samples.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News file

A fund created to protect Minnesota's lakes and rivers appears to have been spent appropriately, but it's difficult to measure whether it's been successful.

That's the conclusion of a report on the Clean Water Fund released Monday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The fund receives one-third of the revenue generated by the Legacy Amendment sales tax increase voters approved in 2008. The dollars must be used "to protect, enhance and restore water quality in lakes, rivers and streams and to protect groundwater sources."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 40 percent of the state's lakes, rivers and streams fail to meet water quality standards because of pollution.

According to the legislative auditor's report, the Legislature has appropriated more than $760 million from the Clean Water Fund to nine agencies since 2009. The two biggest recipients are the Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

BWSR has spent much of its share on grants to local governments for water quality improvement projects. For example, in 2010 the Stearns County Soil and Watershed Conservation District in central Minnesota received a $400,000 grant to install rain gardens to collect storm water runoff and keep it from going into lakes and streams.

The MPCA has spent the largest share of its Clean Water funds, about $54 million, on contracts for activities such as testing water quality samples.

The legislative auditor says all of the Clean Water Fund appropriations in the last two-year budget cycle appear to have met the constitutional requirement to spend money only to protect, enhance and restore water quality.

Sarah Delacueva, program evaluation manager for the Office of the Legislative Auditor, said the office found many state agencies share responsibility for managing the state's waters.

"Everybody is working really hard to understand the issues and coordinate and spend the money in an effective way as possible," Delacueva said.

The report also commends the Clean Water Council, which recommends to the governor and Legislature how to spend the Legacy funds, for being transparent in its decision-making process.

However, the auditor found that some state agencies have not submitted all of the information they're required to about their Clean Water Fund activities, making it a challenge to use the Legacy website to analyze statewide trends.

The report also found it's difficult to measure outcomes of the spending. Before the fund was created, Minnesota didn't regularly collect much data on water quality, so there's no baseline to measure from, Delacueva said.

"It also takes a long time to restore water," she said. "So even if we have put some interventions in place, that water may take years to respond to them. So it's really too early to report Clean Water Fund results in a lot of senses."

Since the Clean Water Fund was created, state agencies have sped up the collection of that data. That includes creating a 10-year cycle for checking water bodies in each of Minnesota's 80 watersheds. That process should help the state track whether it's making progress on restoring water quality in the future, Delacueva said.

"When we start the cycle over, that's when we're going to be able to start seeing whether there's been improvement in certain water bodies and watersheds, or whether there's been deterioration," she said.