Gov. Mark Dayton shouldn’t have to work too hard to convince the 2016 Legislature to pony up a big piece of bonding money for water infrastructure improvements. The headlines from Flint, Mich. have been making that case for him.

Every day since Jan. 14, when DFLer Dayton proposed a $220 million spending surge for water quality, the tainted water story from Flint has been showing Americans what can go wrong when governments cut corners on water. For nearly two years, drinking water for 100,000 people has been polluted with brain-damaging levels of lead. Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is in hot water (sorry, I couldn’t resist) as calls for his resignation and even his arrest mount.

If ever events created a propitious time for a governor to make water quality a policy priority, this is it. Snyder’s woes ought to soften up other Republicans — including those in the Minnesota Legislature — to the idea that some government functions ought not be done on the cheap. And that upgrades at the state’s water treatment plants cannot be forever postponed.

But as illustrated by an exchange of releases Friday about last year’s buffer strip law, water still gives partisans plenty to quarrel about. Dayton announced that, under GOP threat to reject water-related portions of Dayton’s bonding request, he would back off his intention to bring private as well as public drainage ditches into the new buffer regimen. The House GOP’s counterpunches congratulated Dayton for finally going along with the 2015 Legislature’s intent, and denied the threat.

Chalk that round up to the House GOP and agricultural interests. But Dayton indicated in an interview after that dust-up that he has no intention to back away from his clean water fight. Water has risen (there I go again!) to near the top of Dayton’s to-do list for the remaining three years of his term. It will be the subject of a daylong conference — a “water summit” — he will host on Feb. 27 in St. Paul.

Dayton’s decision to become “the water governor” has been several years in the making. It has roots both in his personal history and bad news about the condition of Minnesota’s signature natural resource.

Love for Minnesota waters runs deep in this governor, as it does for most Minnesotans. The Dayton family’s Minnesota story started in Worthington and its Okabena Lake, where great-grandpa George Draper Dayton settled before going into the mercantile business at 7th and Nicollet in Minneapolis. Mark Dayton’s ties to Minnesota’s waters reach to his boyhood home in Long Lake near Lake Minnetonka; fishing outings with his dad and uncles at the family’s retreat on Lake Vermilion; 60 years of pheasant and duck hunting trips in southwestern Minnesota, and homes near Minneapolis lakes Harriet and Calhoun.

That lifetime of water connections made him a sympathetic listener when participants in the Pheasant Summit he convened at Southwest State University in Marshall in December 2014 told him that water in that part of the state was becoming too polluted by agricultural runoff to sustain wildlife. His buffer strip plan was unveiled a month later.

Then in April came a new report detailing just how impaired Minnesota’s waters are — and how little they were likely to improve in the next 30 years, despite the expected $3 billion in Legacy Amendment sales-tax proceeds to be spent on water betterment between 2013 and 2034. He called that report “shocking.”

It said, for example, that in the Minnesota River watershed, only 29 percent of rivers and streams are unimpaired today. Stay the policy course, and in 2034, the unimpaired share would climb only to 45 percent. In the lower Mississippi River basin in southeastern Minnesota, 21 percent of lakes are unimpaired today, and that would improve to only 28 percent by 2034.

Those numbers helped Dayton sell buffer strips. Even as watered down (sorry!) by the Legislature, the 2015 law is an important first step in reducing agricultural pollution. It would have been enough to seal Dayton’s reputation as a water defender in environmentalists’ eyes.

But that’s how Dayton saw it, too — as a first step. Next up: his request to the 2016 session for $220 million in bonding, the bulk to help local governments pay for upgrades to aging waterworks.

That, too, would be only a beginning, Dayton said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Minnesota communities will need $11 billion in water infrastructure improvements over the next two decades to keep their water drinkable.

That’s a whole-state tally — but as several emissaries from the Dayton administration learned in an eight-city listening tour last fall, the cost burden is especially heavy and the need especially pressing in Greater Minnesota. Some of those cities still have wooden water pipes in the ground. Some of their residents already pay water bills three or four times higher than typical monthly bills in the metro area, on median incomes well below those in the Twin Cities.

And many of those communities are coping with the high nitrate levels that result when farmers lavish fertilizer on their soil. Last spring in Adrian, 18 miles west of Worthington, the city advised pregnant women and young children not to drink city water and distributed free bottled water instead. It was a mini-version of the Flint story, a lot closer to home.

Some metro legislators have sputtered about Dayton’s willingness to use state tax dollars to keep water drinkable for rural folk who have been tolerant of water-polluting farming practices by their neighbors. Dayton responded well on Jan. 15: “We’re one state. What benefits Greater Minnesota benefits everybody. … This is everyone’s responsibility.”

That’s true. But governments have long told home and business owners what they can and cannot allow to flow into shared waters. By comparison, those governments largely have given farm-source pollution a pass.

“The water governor” is sending signals that he would like that to change. Anyone who knows the clout of the agricultural lobby at the State Capitol knows that on that score, he is in for a major fight — the news from Flint notwithstanding.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.