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Wild rice study proposed

Published (3/25/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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Matt Tyler, left, and Melinda Suelflow, ricing partners from Finland, testify before the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee March 22 on wild rice standards. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Recent enforcement of a Pollution Control Agency rule that limits sulfate levels where wild rice grows commanded the attention of the House Environment,Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.

The conundrum involves balancing the long-term viability of the state grain against the pressures of one of the state’s largest economic engines, mining.

Nearly four decades ago, the PCA ruled that sulfate levels where wild rice grows should not exceed 10 milligrams per liter, based on research conducted in the 1940s. By comparison, the drinking water standard is 250 milligrams per liter. The rule was rarely enforced until recently when a mining company came to the agency for a permit. High sulfate levels in the area proposed for mining alarmed environmentalists and others who fear the mining operation will endanger wild rice stands in nearby rivers and streams.

There’s agreement that a new scientific study of sulfate’s effect on wild rice is long overdue, but a proposal in a bill to raise the interim sulfate limit to drinking water standards was met with protests until Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) offered a successful amendment to set the limit at

50 milligrams per liter. The study is expected to take up to two years to complete.

Mike Robertson, environmental policy consultant for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports water quality standards for wild rice based on science. But until a new standard is set in rule, cities and industries will not want to spend $4 million on new wastewater treatment facilities, unless they know what standard they will need to meet.

The issue is just one of many debated by committee members while drafting the omnibus environment, energy and natural resources finance bill, HF1010, which was approved 10-7 along party lines March 23. The bill was approved in the House Ways and Means Committee March 24. It now awaits action on the House floor. Its sponsor, Committee Chairman Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), said the Senate bill, SF1003, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), differs, and details will likely be negotiated in a conference committee.

Article 4 of the bill allocates money from state lottery proceeds for Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund projects, including the wild rice/sulfate study. There is $3 million from the trust fund to prepare a master plan for the new Lake Vermilion State Park that was acquired last year and to begin to develop the park according to an approved plan.

The bill also contains a portion of the proposed $8 million cost of acquiring 1,000 acres near Itasca State Park for the LaSalle Lake State Recreation Area. The sale of the LaSalle Lake property would be conducted by The Trust for Public Land with the intention of turning it over to the Department of Natural Resources.

Department officials warned legislators that budget cuts could result in limited hours of operation or the closing of several state parks.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) successfully amended the bill to raise money by harvesting and selling a portion of the valuable black walnut trees in Frontenac and Whitewater state parks.

Drazkowski also amended the bill to establish a new dedicated account that would be used to manage land owned by the DNR, called the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund Land Management Account. A recent audit of publicly owned lands revealed that the state is unable to properly manage all of the land it owns. Initial funding for the new management account would be derived by cutting $1.6 million from acquisition funds for a Scientific and Natural Area and using it as startup funds.

Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) said the bill was so “harsh” that the minority party was unable to “fix it” with amendments. The bill proposes huge rollbacks to the protection of air, land and water, she said.

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