River cleanup plan has some local officials boiling

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 24, 2012 - 11:37 AM

Moves to clean up the Minnesota River lead some to say it's a lot of money for little result.

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Minnesota River in Shakopee

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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A battle is developing in the south metro over cleanup plans for the Minnesota River.

Scott County's top environmental specialists are warning that the state is heading for something that could cost taxpayers a fortune without yielding a result that measures up.

City storm systems that contribute just six percent of the problem are in danger of having to install "significant" fixes that could cost almost $200 million but are likely to yield "an unknown but very small load reduction," warns a letter prepared for the approval of civic leaders across Scott County.

The letter adds: "This does not make any sense."

The dust-up dates back to major water-quality studies released initially last year and now grinding their way slowly toward action. Mayors, county commissioners and others who took part in a discussion of the issue recently in Scott County were indignant.

Asked Prior Lake Mayor Mike Myser: "Is there some reasoning here?"

The county's natural resource chief, Paul Nelson, responded that it all stems from federal clean water requirements.

Minnesota's Pollution Control Agency "feels in a bind here," he said, "and it's incumbent on people in Minnesota to push back on this and help give them some backbone in arguing with the EPA [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. They feel locked in by the Clean Water Act."

In an interview, Nelson said the difficulty lies in the fact that regulators have much more of a grip over some parties contributing to the problem than others, regardless of whether those parties are chiefly to blame.

A lot of the river's problem, he said, comes from the farm sector and from the geology of the river and its banks -- both of them tough issues to tackle.

Cathy Rofshus, spokeswoman for the Pollution Control Agency's southern Minnesota office, referred a reporter to a draft report and to an illustrated fact sheet that's available online. The agency is aware of and sensitive to the issues local governments are raising, she said, and is addressing them in public meetings.

With the potential for tension within the environmental community, activists are treading carefully.

"I have not had a chance to talk to Paul [Nelson] yet and we have not drafted formal comments," said Lori Nelson, executive director of Friends of the Minnesota Valley, "so I'd rather not comment."

She referred questions to Scott Sparlin, executive director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, who has taken part in the state process leading to the threatened cleanup effort. He's being cautious as well.

"I don't find a lot of what Paul says unpalatable," he said. "It's all worth discussion, and we're in a comment period now. Nothing is written in stone. We've got to go through a big approval process yet."

If some people in suburban areas along the river are tempted to put a lot of the blame on farmers in southern Minnesota, he said, the truth is that lots of people are to blame for the river's condition.

"We're somewhat strapped from the standpoint of the economy," he said. "Everyone is not jumping up and down to do stuff that costs a lot of money. We're looking for solutions, especially in the ag sector, that are cost-effective. Something doable. That's where the challenge is, to get the best management practices for a reasonable amount of money."

In Scott County, Nelson is preparing a technical analysis for the county board, which may weigh in as well.

Nelson told Scott County leaders that they have a range of options anywhere from just submitting comments and hoping for a favorable result, all the way up to asking for a contested hearing.

"The Lower Minnesota Watershed folks and the League of Minnesota Cities are watching this closely as well," he said, "and those groups may ask for contested case hearings."

One person at the meeting raised the age-old issue of how much has already been spent on the river cleanup, and what it has actually accomplished. Nelson agreed it's a gigantic sum, on the order of a billion dollars already, and he feels there have been successes.

Sparlin vehemently agrees.

"You have legislators coming out and saying 'We've spent all this money and there's nothing to show for it,'" he said, "and that's a crock of baloney, frankly. Right in Scott County you have Eagle Creek, which is now a designated trout stream after lots of work on it and it's doing very well."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

  • TO LEARN MORE

    The state's readable fact sheet on the issue can be found at bit.ly/I7NHpe.

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