It's been 20 years since the citizens of Minnesota gathered to talk about the air, land and water of their beloved state, so Gov. Mark Dayton has decided that it's time to do it again.
Starting this week, state officials will hold a series of six meetings around the state where anyone can come talk about anything that concerns them about the environment -- sand mining, copper mining, economic development, clean energy, Asian carp, climate change and how, exactly, state regulators should manage it all.
"We are asking citizens to talk broadly about their priorities in air, water, energy and climate, and where we should be going in the future," said Ellen Anderson, Dayton's energy adviser, who has been leading the process that will conclude in March with a major state conference called the Environmental Congress.
In fact, state law requires governmental leaders to hold such a conference every year, under the auspices of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, an entity that is supposed to guide the state in major environmental policy decisions and review. It includes as members the heads of nine of the state agencies that have the greatest influence and interest in the state's natural resources.
But for many years the board has been largely dormant -- the last congress was held by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994, on sustainable development.
"It was on life support," Anderson said of the board. "De-funded and de-staffed and marginalized by the previous administrations."
Now, Dayton wants to hear from citizens, environmental groups and business on their environmental priorities to help determine what role, if any, the board should have.
"It's a commendable effort," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a legislative umbrella organization for Minnesota environmental groups. "We know that Minnesotans really care about this issue, care passionately, but all too often the mechanisms of state government act too slowly or are not responsive."
To kick off the conversation, the board last week issued a state report card to assess the state's progress and emerging issues around energy and the environment (www.startribune.com/a1919). A lot has changed in the past two decades.
Minnesotans have clean water to drink, but the state is consuming precious groundwater at an unsustainable pace, the report said. Water quality in lakes, streams and rivers has improved, thanks to the Clean Water Act that was passed 40 years ago. But progress is painfully slow, the report pointed out.
About 60 percent of Minnesota lakes and streams are clean, fishable and swimmable. But the rest contain pollutants in levels high enough to make them unhealthy for people and aquatic life.
Prairie once covered 18 million acres of Minnesota land -- the rest was largely forest. Today, the forests are in good shape, but less than 1 percent of the vast grasslands remain. They have been replaced by agriculture, which has removed most of the natural wetlands and contributes to soil and nutrient runoff. A key question is how to conserve more land in the state's agricultural region, the report said.
Tougher federal air quality rules are expected in the next few years, which that raises critical questions about the state's energy diet and development of alternative forms of energy.
And then there's climate change, which already is having a major impact on the state. Some species of trees, like birch and maple, that once only grew in the bottom part of the state are moving north. Storms are bigger and ice is leaving the lakes earlier in the spring.
In short, Anderson said, there's a lot to talk about.
"There has not been an opportunity for the state to dig into these questions," she said.
In the next month, the Environmental Quality Board will host six citizens forums around the state. Registration is recommended: mn.gov/EnvironmentalCongress.
"We hope this will be an annual process," said Anderson. "And that we can use this as a baseline."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394