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Politics of wild rice heats up at the Minnesota Capitol

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Red Lake cultivates 800 acres of wild rice.
Legislation that would get rid of Minnesota's longstanding yet rarely enforced wild rice standard is ready for floor votes in the House and Senate.
John Enger | MPR News File

Minnesota's state grain — wild rice — is at the center of a battle at the Capitol over water infrastructure, mining, Native American heritage and environmental protection. 

Wild rice grows in water, so it's affected by water pollution. But how do you regulate the pollution in a way that protects wild rice while also taking care of the industries and communities that pollute?

Who is fighting over wild rice?

Environmental groups, tribal organizations, cities, mining companies, labor unions and state agency officials — not to mention, state lawmakers. 

Environmental groups, tribal organizations and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency want to preserve a longstanding rule on sulfate discharges. The rule is rarely enforced, but it's aimed at protecting wild rice waters from sulfate pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants and industrial operations such as mining. Studies have shown sulfate can negatively affect wild rice. 

Republicans are working to nullify the old rule, and Democrats representing Minnesota's Iron Range support that effort. Other DFLers, especially those in the Twin Cities, oppose it.

What are they fighting about?

The current amount of sulfate allowable in wild rice waters is 10 milligrams per liter, a number that can be difficult to achieve without expensive treatment technology such as reverse osmosis. 

A few years ago, the Legislature instructed the MPCA to conduct more research and come up with a better standard that accounted for discrepancies observed on the ground. For example, some lakes appeared to be extremely sensitive to sulfate, while others had thriving wild rice stands with much higher sulfate concentrations. 

The MPCA came up with a new lake-by-lake standard, but an administrative law judge recently rejected it.

Where does wild rice grow?

Wild rice is most prolific in northern Minnesota, but it can be found throughout the state. 

Wild rice is culturally significant to the Ojibwe people, and it sustained the first people to inhabit the area that is now Minnesota. Thousands of tribal members participate in the wild rice harvest every year. 

Minnesota has more natural wild rice than any other state in the country.

When will this dispute over pollution that affects wild rice be settled?

No one knows, but this latest attempt to nullify Minnesota's standard could come up for floor votes in the House and Senate soon. If it passes, Gov. Mark Dayton would have to decide whether to sign or veto it. 

It's also possible we'll see political maneuvering up until the end of session on this issue. Supporters say if the bill becomes law, municipalities and businesses will not have to worry about making expensive technology upgrades to their water treatment systems. But MPCA officials say nullifying the rule would violate federal law, making way for lawsuits.