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How are Legacy Amendment funds being spent, and what can we expect by 2034?

ST. PAUL -- In 2008, Minnesotans raised their own taxes in the midst of a recession. Voters that year approved a 25-year effort to boost the outdoors, recreation and the arts. Chief among the goals of the Legacy Amendment to the state's constitut...

Measuring the stream flow underneath the ice on the Crow River
Zach Moore, left, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, measures the stream flow underneath the ice on the Crow River in Delano on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. About $90 million a year is dedicated toward clean water through the Legacy Amendment. (Jean Pieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL -- In 2008, Minnesotans raised their own taxes in the midst of a recession.

Voters that year approved a 25-year effort to boost the outdoors, recreation and the arts. Chief among the goals of the Legacy Amendment to the state's constitution was a cause central to the identity of the Land of 10,000 Lakes -- clean water. It would get a third of the more than $6 billion of new money.

So, five years later, with $330 million of Legacy Amendment money already spent on clean water efforts, is the state on the right track toward the amendment's goal to "protect, enhance and restore" Minnesota's water resources? What have Minnesotans gotten for their money so far, and what can they expect by 2034?

Most observers agree that the state is doing better at assessing the condition of its water and reducing pollution discharged directly into rivers and lakes from factories and water-treatment plants.

But critics say the state isn't prioritizing the clean water spending well enough. And less direct forms of pollution, such as runoff from farms, remain a big problem. They raise the concern that by 2034 Minnesota will have spent $2 billion without widespread improvements in the ability of its water bodies to support drinking, swimming, fishing and other activities.


State leaders urge patience. They say the work being done now will help prioritize the work ahead.

In 2008, voters were told that 40 percent of Minnesota's waters were impaired. Fifty-six percent of them agreed to raise the state sales tax by three-eighths of a percent.

Five years in, here is how that investment stands:

What have we brought?

The amendment's Clean Water Fund has allowed Minnesota to move beyond tracking individual pollutants in individual waterways -- a process Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine says "was going to take us probably about 1,000 years to do all of the state" -- to now evaluating entire watersheds.

The state is building an inventory of water conditions across Minnesota intended to provide a data-based guide for decision-making for years to come.

For an idea of how it works, consider the Pomme de Terre River watershed in west-central Minnesota.

State officials spent $406,000 from 2007 to 2013 to monitor and produce an assessment report in that watershed and an additional $449,000 to design pollution-reduction strategies and goals based on the study. Of that $855,000, about $314,000 was from the Clean Water Fund.


Overall, about 60 percent of Clean Water Fund spending has gone toward implementing measures to protect and restore water bodies. Eighteen percent has been spent designing protection and restoration plans for watersheds. Monitoring and assessment has received 14 percent, and less than 10 percent has gone to protecting drinking water.

With the money, Minnesota has:

-- Completed physical, chemical and biological assessments of more than half of its 81 watersheds. That process is scheduled to be complete by 2018, at which point the process will begin again to track progress.

-- Spent roughly $86 million in on-the-ground projects through the Board of Water and Soil Resources, which distributes grants to reduce pollution from "nonpoint" sources, which include agricultural and urban runoff.

The amendment is also providing money that is jump-starting local projects, such as the cleanup of the St. Louis River area near Duluth. The Clean Water Fund's spending of $3.9 million on cleanup through 2015 will leverage $8.7 million in federal funds. More has been leveraged through Legacy Outdoor Heritage Fund money as well. This is a $300 million to $400 million project addressing more than a century's worth of pollution in the Great Lakes port.

Are we on the right track?

While Minnesota leaders say deliberate progress is being made, several environmental groups question the priority-setting by state agencies.

"Are we on track to get where we want to be? No," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "The system has not been set up to prioritize the practices, focus the money where it will do the most good in terms of what is needed in order to restore waters."


Adds former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Gene Merriam: "I find it very troubling that we don't have a big-picture goal of what we're trying to do or why." He has been on the budget oversight committee of the Clean Water Council, which makes funding recommendations to the Legislature, for four years.

Merriam urges enlisting scientists and economists to figure out what investments will yield the greatest results.

But setting priorities is complex, says John Jaschke, executive director of the Board of Water and Soil Resources. Local community input is critical, said Jaschke, but it works against a statewide priority ranking system.

What matters to swimmers might not matter as much to those who fish, Jaschke said. And there are different kinds of fishing as well.

"There's no right answer every time; (there are) choices that are made in a public arena," he said.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said the clean water money appears to be getting doled out as the amendment intended.

Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen said the state is "making some good progress" on improving water quality.

Republican state Rep. Paul Torkelson agrees. "I really am proud of what Minnesota's done," he said.


How do we track progress?

With so much taxpayer money involved, the state has set up the www.legacy.leg.mn website so the public can monitor how the money is being spent and how projects are progressing. There are also regular reports on the Clean Water Fund.

A February 2012 "performance report" on the Clean Water Fund tracking allocations and results found few definitive trends, in part because efforts were still new. The next performance report is due early this year.

Other ways to monitor programs:

-- A "clean water roadmap" will gauge progress on water quality goals. Detailed at http://bit.ly/cleanwaterroadmap , the roadmap will track water quality for lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater as well as aquifer levels. Each will have the latest conditions, the trend, the goal for 2034 and an indication of whether the state is on track to meet the goal.

-- In addition, every two years, the state posts a list of "delisted" water bodies, or those taken off the federal impaired waters list for specific pollutants. According to data from 2010, 2012 and a draft for 2014 -- the years since the Legacy Amendment's passage -- 51 water bodies were delisted. That's nearly double the total of 28 delistings from 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

There could be other factors contributing to the increase in delistings, such as updated data and other pollution-control programs. But MPCA officials say they expect the number of delistings to continue to accelerate because of the Clean Water Fund efforts.

But as delistings have increased, the expanded monitoring by the state has also increased the number of water bodies added to the list. From 2010 to 2014, 1,611 impairments were added. That followed 1,377 from 2002 to 2008.


Who's to blame if we fail?

Ultimately, the Legislature, which decides how much and where Clean Water Funds are spent, will be held accountable.

"We, at the end of the day, are the ones responsible for allocating the money, and we should be responsible for making sure that it's getting results," Thissen said.

Republican state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, who says he's been satisfied with the progress, puts accountability on those who created the fund.

"The public really does own it, and I can't emphasize that enough," he said. "If they see that there's something wrong, then they should be contacting their legislator or an oversight committee or an auditor and ask the questions."

Practically speaking, though, control rests in large part with state agencies.

The MPCA, along with other agencies with authority over water issues -- the Board of Water and Soil Resources, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health, the Public Facilities Authority and the Metropolitan Council -- make recommendations to the Clean Water Council, which then makes recommendations to the Legislature.

When the Legislature appropriates Clean Water Fund money, it does so through the agencies. And Ingebrigtsen has noted his concerns that the Clean Water Council is administered through the MPCA, one of the chief recipients of funds.


The council has 19 voting members appointed by the governor along with five nonvoting members from state agencies and four nonvoting state lawmakers.

A November 2011 legislative auditor review noted that the Clean Water Fund has been used primarily to support existing state programs, and that oversight rests largely with state agencies that receive the money. Also, the Clean Water Council relies heavily on agency advice and does not actively oversee agency operations, the review found.

How does it work?

Stillwater's Lake McKusick had a phosphorous problem.

Too much of the nutrient was being carried by runoff from rooftops, driveways and streets into storm sewers and directly into the 50-acre lake, which became cloudy and overgrown with algae and wound up in 2006 on the state's "impaired" list.

Among the fixes local leaders employed: a $20,000 grant in 2011 from the state's Clean Water Fund to install six rain gardens where runoff could soak in and pollutants could filter out naturally.

In came more than $5,000 in plants and a similar amount for "pre-treatment chambers" to provide additional filtration. More than $2,000 each was spent on retaining walls, edgers and excavation.

In part because of those efforts, the lake's nutrient load went down and clarity improved, and the lake was taken off the impaired waters list for excess nutrients in 2012.

What about runoff?

Minnesota can regulate what factories and water-treatment plants put into its rivers and lakes. The state has not, though, found an effective way to tackle one of the biggest contributors to polluted waterways: Farms.

Roughly 85 percent of the state's water pollution comes from "nonpoint" sources, according to state officials, and agriculture is a key contributor. Officials are left to ask landowners to voluntarily follow conservation guidelines.

"For years, we've kind of been dependent upon these random acts of conservation," Merriam said.

The Legislature could pass laws or agencies could adopt rules requiring farmers to adopt conservation practices and pay their share of cleanup costs, but that would be a political challenge.

"Not in the foreseeable future; I don't think there's the political support for regulating agricultural production," Merriam said.

Last session, the Legislature established a water certification program with Clean Water Fund money. Farmers who follow certain principles can be certified for up to 10 years as an environmentally sound user of water.

Officials hope the program will encourage more farmers to adopt conservation practices. If not, some politically acceptable version of regulation may be needed.

Several advocates say a system where farmers and other property owners get some autonomy in how to reduce pollution may be the only way to get such support.

In 2011, Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota, laid out a "speed limit" approach: The state specifies a maximum amount of pollution for an area, and if that maximum is exceeded, landowners in that area are required to reduce it or pay fines.

The idea has gone nowhere politically.

Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, said a shared accountability model is "an unmanageable idea." It's not known with enough specificity where pollution is coming from to be able to regulate, he said.

There is enough knowledge, he added, for groups like his to educate the state's 80,000 farmers about the optimal allocation of fertilizer, for example, to maximize efficiency and hold down nutrient runoff.

Will we have clean water?

Whether Minnesota's water will be clean in 2034 depends on whether one is asking about water that's currently clean or currently polluted, says Stine of the Pollution Control Agency.

"I think it's reasonable to expect that places that aren't screwed up don't get screwed up," Stine said.

But in the polluted waters, "it's not realistic, in our view, that you're going to eliminate all impairments in 25 years of funding."

It is going to take an awful lot of work and a lot of focus on the problem of where all that pollution is coming from to make those improvements, he adds.

Taking the 40 percent impaired waters statistic from the 2008 campaign, Stine said, it might be realistic to get that number down to 30 percent by 2034.

"Going into it, nobody ever expected that this amount of dollars would take care of everything in 25 years. ... It's not enough money to do everything that needs to be done," said Rebecca Flood, assistant MPCA commissioner.

"But it certainly is going to mean that we've got a systematic approach to protecting and restoring water resources. All of the work may not be done, but we've got the approach that's going to get us there."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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