In the latest effort to protect wild rice from industrial pollution, the Legislature is being asked to create a special “stewardship council” that could resolve a stubborn impasse involving industry, tribal treaty rights and Minnesota’s beloved state grain.
At the same time, a team of scientists working for Minnesota’s American Indian tribes has issued a separate set of recommendations — an urgent call for tougher enforcement of existing environmental rules that protect wild rice waters.
The clashing reports spotlight the complexity of protecting Minnesota’s dwindling natural wild rice stands and regulating an industrial pollutant called sulfate.
They also expose a rift between Minnesota’s DFL establishment and the state’s Indian leaders, whose scientists say the state is failing to control sulfate pollution in wild rice waters.
“You’re losing a species that can’t adapt,” said Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Former Gov. Mark Dayton appointed a wild rice task force last year after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency acknowledged it was at a stalemate trying to address the challenge. His group included environmental advocates, state regulators, scientists, representatives from regulated industries such as taconite companies, and a few tribal representatives.
It released its final report last month.
The core recommendation: The Legislature should create and fund a Wild Rice Stewardship Council that would include scientists, representatives of state government, private stakeholders and all of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized Indian tribes. While the report doesn’t spell out the stakeholders, it is generally assumed they would include representatives from regulated industries such as taconite mining and big utilities, who also sat on the task force.
The proposed council “has the potential to be transformative,” said task force member Kathryn Hoffman, head of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
But the makeup of the council will be a serious point of tension.
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe pulled out of the governor’s work group last fall, saying tribal nations weren’t adequately represented. They formed a separate wild rice task force with 10 of the 11 tribes, which are sovereign nations.
Margaret Watkins, water quality specialist for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said she supports the idea of a stewardship council, but that regulated industries responsible for the sulfate pollution should not be part of it or be part of rule-making.
“It’s sort of like having the fox guarding the hen house,” Watkins said.
Schuldt, the Fond du Lac water projects coordinator, agreed. “Fond du Lac would have a hard time participating in it if it did include industry,” she said.
Last week, the Fond du Lac tribe filed an appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, challenging a decision by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to issue a new discharge permit for a tailings basin at the Minntac mine on the Iron Range. The tribe said that water near the unlined, 12-square-mile basin has shown sulfate levels up to 40 times higher than the state limit and has imperiled nearby wild rice stands.
Natural wild rice is an aquatic grass that grows across Minnesota, although much has been lost in the southern part of the state. Sulfate is a mineral salt generated by runoff from industrial water discharge. In the lake bottoms and wetland muck where plant seeds germinate and grow, bacteria can convert sulfate into sulfide, which is toxic to wild rice.
Tribes: regulate sulfate
The Minnesota Tribal Wild Rice Task Force report, issued in December, says that state, tribal and federal agencies need a comprehensive strategy for protecting wild rice. But it focuses squarely on regulatory fixes.
Its authors urged the MPCA to enforce the state’s long-standing standard for sulfate, which is 10 milligrams per liter. “While this standard has largely been unenforced by state or federal agencies, the Tribes have fully implemented it,” the report said.
In addition, it recommends greatly expanding the list of bodies of water protected by the sulfate limit, from about 1,000 lakes and other water bodies to 2,300. The MPCA could also strengthen wild rice protections by changing the so-called “beneficial use” category for water quality. Wild rice waters currently fall under Class 4 designated use for water quality, which is agricultural and carries fewer protections. The tribes want them moved to Class 2 “aquatic life and recreation,” which includes trout streams and offers broader protections.
The tribal report also identifies the parties discharging the highest volumes of sulfate in Minnesota: two Minnesota Power electric utilities, and several taconite mining operations. Community wastewater treatment plants generally account for the smallest discharges, the scientists found. They aren’t the problem, said Watkins, and don’t need to fear expensive water treatment upgrades.
Both reports will be distributed to legislators and have been sent to Dayton and Gov. Tim Walz, who responded positively late Thursday.
“Wild rice has played a role in Minnesota’s economy for generations and has sacred meaning for indigenous people in our state,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Lt. Gov. [Peggy] Flanagan and I support legislation establishing a Stewardship Council that would include all 11 tribes in Minnesota and work to protect our official state grain.”
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, vice chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, said she’s seen both reports and expects public discussion as the Legislature gets underway. “At the end of the day, whatever we enforce will have to be in consultation with the tribes,” she said.
Schuldt said she’s waiting to see how Walz reacts to the report and how his administration reaches out to the tribes.
Wild rice used to be widespread east of the Rockies, Schuldt said. Now the imperiled grain is confined to Minnesota, small parts of northern Wisconsin and bits of Michigan.
“It’s really a canary in the coal mine species that’s incredibly sensitive to environmental disruption,” she said.