Environmental advocates Thursday warned state officials against using money from the new Legacy Amendment to replace existing funds for the outdoors, clean water and conservation.

Although many programs will face significant funding cuts this legislative session, proposed cuts to conservation are comparatively higher, said Dave Zentner, Steve Morse and Paul Aasen, who represent the majority of Minnesota's environmental organizations. Conservation reductions should be proportionate to cuts in other areas, they said.

The Legacy Amendment approved in November creates money for the outdoors, clean water, parks and trails, and the arts by raising the state sales tax three-eighths of a percent for 25 years.

The amendment states that the funds -- possibly $276 million a year -- are to supplement existing funding. Environmental leaders are concerned that the money could be used instead to backfill the state environment and conservation budget.

At a Capitol news conference Thursday, Zentner said the key is laying the groundwork to ensure that only the most useful, scientifically sound projects receive funding.

"We're going to have to be vigilant every year," he said "But this year is the bellwether year."

The three said they support the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council's recommendations for spending $69 million in Legacy funds on the outdoors in 2010.

Aasen laid out a plan for cleaning up Minnesota's water that would dedicate almost $77 million a year to water testing, cleanup and pollution source control. About $3 million would help clean up drinking water and just over $2.5 million would be dedicated to education and research.

Aasen said this is the state's first opportunity to devote significant funding to water clean up since the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.

Nicole Tommerdahl is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.