Five years ago this week, Minnesota voters passed a constitutional amendment that increased the state’s sales tax by three-eighths of one percent to fund projects related to clean water, natural resources, and arts and culture.
According to a 2008 poll by Minnesota Environmental Partnership, clean water was the leading issue that motivated voters to support the amendment: 42% of those who voted for the amendment indicated that cleaning up and protecting Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams was the primary reason for their vote.
Accordingly, one-third of the funds generated through this amendment are dedicated to clean water in Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater. This stable source of funding, set in the state’s constitution for twenty-five years, has enabled policymakers to tackle ambitious projects that are expected to profoundly improve water quality in the state.
“Knowing that that these funds will be available for the next 20 years has changed so much about our ability to restore and protect water,” says Commissioner John Linc Stine of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Minnesota’s water pollution problems developed over the course of many decades. We want to solve them the right way—sustainably—and the Legacy Amendment is making that possible. We’ve set an ambitious course, and thanks to this steady source of funding, we know that those goals are reachable.”
So far, more than 300 individual amendment-funded projects have been sponsored by the MPCA across the state. Though many of these efforts are still underway, the amendment is beginning to bear fruit in the form of major initiatives that will position Minnesota as a leader in water resources protection.
The watershed approach: a turbo-charged effort to improve water quality
For decades, water management professionals have been making steady progress on assessing water quality in the state’s 12,000 lakes and 105,000 miles of streams. Monitoring and assessment work establishes baseline data for the health of lakes and streams, and sets the stage for targeted improvements in those that are found to be unhealthy. Over the past five years, the MPCA has moved from assessing a smaller number of individual lakes and streams across the state to evaluating each of the state’s 81 watersheds on a rotating, 10-year cycle.
“Prior to 2008, our process was broad but not deep. We did water quality assessments in the best way we could with the resources available at the time,” said MPCA division director Gaylen Reetz. “The Legacy Amendment makes it possible to do much more detailed monitoring on many more lakes, streams, and wetlands. Once we have completed one 10-year monitoring cycle in 2018, we’ll be able to go back and revisit those watersheds to see how everyone’s hard work on protecting and restoring our waters has paid off—and that will truly be exciting to see.”
The St. Louis River Area of Concern: leveraging funds to dial back 130 years of degradation
The St. Louis River estuary, just off the southwest tip of Lake Superior in Duluth, has suffered from over 130 years of accumulated environmental degradation. In the years prior to environmental regulation, human and industrial waste, dredging of aquatic habitat, and harmful logging and milling practices crippled the health of the estuary. Beginning in 2010, the MPCA spearheaded what will be one of the largest restoration and cleanup efforts in Great Lakes history, with the support of numerous partners. The St. Louis River is the headwaters of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes, so its cleanup and restoration promises a host of economic and environmental benefits that will reverberate throughout the region.
“The Legacy Amendment came along at the right time for us,” said MPCA supervisor Nelson French. “We have charted out a timeline that is ambitious, but achievable, and we’ve been able to use Legacy Amendment dollars to leverage over $20 million in outside funding, which is vital to our success. With this continued support, we expect to remove all 9 of the impairments to this area, and to be able to delist the St. Louis River area of concern from the Great Lakes Area of Concern list by 2025.”
Demonstrating success of regulatory efforts: water monitoring on the Minnesota River
In summer 2012, extremely dry weather created a rare opportunity to evaluate water quality on the Minnesota River under drought stress and to learn whether stringent wastewater treatment regulations enacted over the past several years had improved the river’s health as expected. The necessary testing conditions, however, existed for only a short period of time.
“Funding from the Legacy Amendment allowed us to act quickly to take advantage of this rare testing opportunity,“ said Glenn Skuta. “We mobilized a team to conduct three weeks of intensive monitoring during the height of the drought. The data they collected provided clear evidence that the high bar we set for wastewater plants has measurably improved the health of the Minnesota River. Clean water funding made this rapid response possible.”
The amendment’s unfolding future
In coming years, MPCA leaders say that Minnesotans will continue to reap the dividends of their investment in clean water.
“It is only fitting that Minnesota, a state with such abundant water resources located at the top of our continent’s watersheds, should lead the way in protecting and restoring those resources,” said Stine. “This amendment was a bold statement by Minnesota voters about the priorities they have for our state over the coming decades. We intend to follow through on our commitment to carry out the vision that voters set forth.”