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Minnesotans must help senators fend off anti-clean-water tactics

Until recently, 51 percent of Minnesota’s streams (including many of the streams and wetlands that flow into the Mississippi River, the Minnesota River, the St. Louis River, and many of Minnesota’s most important lakes) did not have guaranteed protections under the Clean Water Act. That meant developers could build over our wetlands; oil companies, power plants and manufacturing industries could dump into our streams; and federal law couldn’t stop them, thanks to a loophole created by a pair of polluter-driven lawsuits nearly a decade ago.

Peter Suechting

The loophole left vulnerable the wetlands and streams that feed into these rivers and lakes, and other rivers and lakes popular for paddling and swimming. That leaves communities like Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul (to name a few), where Minnesotans’ economic and cultural way of life depends upon clean water, vulnerable. Demonstrating the scope of Minnesota’s clean water economy, a recent roundup of publicly available recreation statistics found that 9.5 million Minnesotans visit parks that feature waterways each year; 800,000 Minnesotans registered recreational boats; and more than 1.4 million people registered fishing licenses in Minnesota.

Fortunately, on Aug. 28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enacted a rule to close this loophole and restore protections to more than 46,000 miles of streams across Minnesota and nearly 2 million across the country. The Clean Water Rule restores Clean Water Act protections to more than 46,000 miles of waterways here in Minnesota, which provide drinking water to almost 970,000 Minnesotans. It’s the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade. Already, tens of thousands of Minnesotans (including many small farmers and local elected officials) have stepped forward to declare their support for restoring water quality protections.

Private profits or the common good?

Jim Spencer noted a few weeks ago on the Star Tribune blog The Mill that development and agricultural interests generally oppose the EPA’s Clean Water Rule as over-regulation that undermines the use of private property. Industry groups commonly deploy this argument to attack those regulations protecting our environmental commons – the air that we all breathe, and the water that we all drink. But these regulations are badly needed to protect our most valuable resources.

Al Jazeera recently published the first in a three-part series examining Wisconsin’s stressed water resources, drawing international attention to its environmental record under the governorship of Scott Walker. Walker entered office in 2011 determined to rein in the state’s “out-of-control DNR.” Since Walker’s ascension, business permitting has skyrocketed and environmental regulatory enforcement has plummeted. In the past 10 years, the number of controversial frac sand mines in Wisconsin has exploded from five to more than 60. In the same amount of time, factory farms have multiplied, from just 50 to 250.

While the private sector may benefit from Walker’s regulatory rollback, the public suffers. Following on the heels of Al Jazeera’s report, MinnPost republished an extensive article by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism documenting the contamination in Wisconsin’s drinking water sources and the federal and state government’s failure to address the problem. As a result of regulatory enforcement and gung-ho permitting, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted by lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, heavy metals, and other contaminants. The prevalence of these contaminants (often two or more in many drinking water sources) led some researchers to compare one Wisconsinite’s water to that of a Third World country.

Regulations act to preserve the environmental quality that allows all Minnesotans to thrive. Minnesotans should therefore applaud Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s and Sen. Al Franken’s votes in opposition to attacks on the EPA’s Clean Water Rule in the U.S. Senate. There’s no need to repeat our neighbor’s mistakes.

Don’t let dirty water ride into town!

After Senate Democrats (with the aid of President Barack Obama’s veto threat) staved off two attacks on the Clean Water Rule during the first week of November, Senate Republicans turned to the must-pass budget bill as their final option for getting rid of it. Their plan is simple: install a dirty water rider that rolls back the Clean Water Rule and threaten a government shutdown if Democrats don’t pass it. Simple and effective – but dirty.

It’s more important than ever that Sens. Klobuchar and Franken hear from those who love Minnesota’s waterways and its clean-water economy. They need your support to continue to stand up for clean water.

Peter Suechting is a clean water organizer at Environment Minnesota.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/04/2015 - 08:42 am.

    EPA over-reach

    The “Clean Water Rule” is just another example of unelected bureaucrats creating law. Laws, like the Clean Water Act, are created and funded by the U.S. Congress. Their opposition to the EPA “rule” is simply to make that point.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/04/2015 - 08:52 am.

    “Poison pills”

    The dirty water rider is not the only poison pill in the budget bill. The Republicans have tacked on a rider, I’m told, that would also defund Planned Parenthood. I’m sure there are others.These poison pills have become a regular, “anti-Santa Claus” feature of the toxic political climate.

    They used to lard these budget bills with all kinds of little riders for pet projects for this and that politician’s home state/district to get their support- “earmarks” I think they’re called. I’m sure there are plenty of these in the budget bill as well. Let’s hope we can come up with a solution to fix this before all of our water becomes like Wisconsin’s.

  3. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 12/04/2015 - 11:13 am.

    the problem of Big Ag in MN

    Peter, thanks for the informative article.

    I’m reminded of a City Pages article from July that documented the disastrous environmental consequences of Big Ag in southwestern Minnesota.

    Does the EPA’s action address some of the problems in the above article?

    • Submitted by Peter Suechting on 12/04/2015 - 12:31 pm.

      Ag is exempt from Clean Water Act

      The EPA’s action does not address cropland sources of water pollution. Cropland sources are exempt from the Clean Water Act’s regulations, and the new Clean Water Rule does not add in new regulations in this regard. Agricultural exemptions under both the Clean Water Act and the new Clean Water Rule (an addendum to the Clean Water Act) is one of the reasons that make big ag’s opposition to the new Clean Water Rule so inexplicable.

  4. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/04/2015 - 11:51 am.


    The proposed clean water act from the EPA is not clear on what waterways would and what ones would not be protected. The clean water act was supposed to clarify this and it is a total failure in that regard. That is why there is opposition to it and rightfully so. Environment Minnesota has it wrong and refuses to listen to anything but themselves. Common sense should win out in this one and that would be to scrap the proposed rule for something better that doesn’t easily allow government overreach. Until you can tell me what would be regulated and what wouldn’t this rule is complete garbage.

    • Submitted by Rod Loper on 12/04/2015 - 12:56 pm.

      Which waters to protect?

      This is ridiculous. A bunch of bureaucrats politicians and lobbyists sitting around a table to permit pollution of a shared vital resource. Get this straight. ALL waters matter.

      • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/04/2015 - 02:19 pm.

        it is ridicuous

        You need to read it first. What is a tributary? The EPA has yet to define that. Is it the drainage ditch that might be attached to another drainage ditch that might be attached to a small stream that goes to a small river before reaching the Minnesota River? You don’t know and the EPA has yet to say if it is or isn’t. What about intermittent streams or small seasonally saturated areas in farmed fields or pastures? When the EPA defines those are not regulated you might have something but until then it should be scrapped. The EPA has purposefully refused to define which waters because it intends to use it’s powers to overreach.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/04/2015 - 04:27 pm.

          What is a tributary?

          You ask: “Is it the drainage ditch that might be attached to another drainage ditch that might be attached to a small stream that goes to a small river before reaching the Minnesota River?”

          Yes, that’s a tributary and the rules are clear in defining them so. Many drainage ditches in Minnesota are waters of the U.S. They became so when they were designed and built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to drain marshes and wetlands into the streams and rivers that they flow into, even periodically. The streams they feed into are also “navigable waterways” which have been under “federal jurisdiction” since 1789.

          • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/21/2015 - 02:23 pm.


            That is the problem. Previously those have been exempted for farming practices and the new WOTUS rule would eliminate those exemptions as well as others. Any harm from pollution that reaches these types of water features is not quantifiable at all and there is zero proof that harm is being caused from these. All this does is cause undue hardship on agriculture.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/04/2015 - 04:41 pm.

          What is a tributary?

          It looks like the EPA has already defined it. A tributary is a water that contributes flow, either directly or through another water, to a water identified as a “water of the United States” that is characterized by the presence of the physical indicators of a bed and banks and an ordinary high water mark.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/04/2015 - 01:11 pm.

      Where’s the government overreach?

      Do you think the rule is unclear in protecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries? The final rule linked above in the article consisting of 75 pages of commentary including detailed provisions of the final rule identifies 8 categories of “waters of the United States”, only a few of which require “case specific” determinations. The rule in my mind creates a clear enough basis for identifying which waters are included, but I suppose might put the burden on the developer or landowner to hire a scientist to make a “case specific” call in some instances based on the parameters of the rule.

      The rule was intended to remedy gaps created by court decisions (which allowed some landowners to escape regulations of wetlands because they couldn’t be shown to be connected hydrologically to an interstate water). Now the rule may require such landowners to comply by, say, not filling or polluting wetlands or other waters not obviously connected to the interstate waters.

      I’m sure these regulations might create hardships for some. I hardly think that they’re “complete garbage” for that reason.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/04/2015 - 03:00 pm.

      “Not Clear?”

      Looking at the rule, I see that there is no listing of specific waterways. There are, however, very specific and detailed criteria for deciding whether a waterway is covered.

      Go back to the person who told you that the rule is not clear, and tell him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

      • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/04/2015 - 04:16 pm.


        That criteria would include many “waterways” that should not be included and be a serious overreach of the EPA. That is why they want it clarified to rule the ones that don’t need it to be left out.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/04/2015 - 11:00 pm.

          That would be subjective

          The economic concerns of some in the ag industry intent on despoiling the waterways that are a common resource of all are immaterial to the matter at hand. Quit fouling the waters and your problem goes away, continue to do so, and face the penalty. Given the status of the waters in, lets say, SW Minnesota, its clear that the Ag industry cannot be trusted to act as good stewards of our shared natural resources. As such, they must be forced, through power of law, into compliance. Sorry if that makes folks feel bad, but you’ve had your chance and you blew it, monumentally.

          • Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 12/21/2015 - 02:28 pm.


            This has nothing to do with the MPCA study on waters in MN. If you think seasonally saturated areas in fields and drainage ditches miles from any navigable water should be regulated you are in the minority and as wrong as the EPA. Common agricultural practices have been exempted previously and are in jeopardy of being eliminated causing many economic issues for more than just the ag community.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/06/2015 - 03:05 pm.

          Not Exactly

          The Clean Water Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate water quality of “the waters of the United States.” That definition has been limited by several Supreme Court decisions. The rule seems to be an attempt to make the EPA’s definition of “waters” coincide with the limitations set out by the Supreme Court.

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