ST. PAUL - The past seven years has seen an explosion in how much Minnesotans know about the quality of their waters.
The state's monitoring program is now seen as among the most comprehensive in the nation, giving policy makers, scientists, land managers, farmers and environmentalists unprecedented insight into which lakes and streams are healthy, which need help and what should be done.
Amid the heated politics of "big ag" vs. the environmental lobby and suburban sniping over green lawns, Minnesota's growing network of monitoring stations and its testing regimen provide scientific data on the levels of aquatic life and pollutants -- and where the pollutants are coming from.
It's the result of one of the least-visible programs to emerge from the state's Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was approved by voters in 2008.
The amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent and distributed the extra revenue into four funds: outdoor heritage; clean water; parks and trails; and arts and cultural heritage:
- The Outdoor Heritage Fund quickly bought and restored land, then opened it to public hunting and wildlife viewing.
- The Parks and Trails Fund immediately built trails, interpretive centers and other recreation infrastructure.
- The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund promptly began funneling money into public sculptures, entertainment troupes and educational history programs overseen by the Minnesota Historical Society.
- The Clean Water Fund began funneling money to, among other things, a study.
The goal of that study - more accurately, a series of programs within several state agencies - is to examine every lake in Minnesota larger than 500 acres and most lakes larger than 100 acres, as well as the state's 81 major watersheds, many with up to 60 stream-monitoring sites.
For pollution, the methodology is simple: Start downstream. If pollutants are detected, work upstream and up the tributaries until the source is found. Because some sources of pollution, notably farming, do not have to report discharges under the federal Clean Water Act, this methodology is the most accurate way to trace contaminants to their origins.
Understanding nearly all the state's waters has always been a goal of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, but actual monitoring was sparse, said Glenn Skuta, surface water monitoring manager for the MPCA, which handles the bulk of the monitoring.
Before the Legacy Amendment, the MPCA spent about $1 million a year on the task. Since the Clean Water Fund began a steady flow of cash, the agency has spent about $9 million annually on monitoring.
"Now, we are getting to many more waters and faster," Skuta said.
Several high-profile MPCA reports released this year - reports that generally showed the state's cleanest waters in the northeast forested region and the dirtiest in the southwest farm region - were the direct result of data obtained from the accelerated efforts. The regimen has earned Minnesota the highest classification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alongside Maine, Vermont and Ohio.
The original goal was to complete the entire state by 2020. However, the final budget compromise approved this spring by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton reduces the agency's funding for the next two years.
But the task of studying water quality is only a first step. The next is planning a response, and the final step - and the priciest and most important - is funding projects that lead to cleaner water.
A backlog of such projects existed when Clean Water Fund grants began flowing in 2010. But as the MPCA began identifying sources of contamination, more projects were identified, and the list grew. The Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, which handles the bulk of the projects, saw its funding for projects to address "nonpoint source" pollution - usually farm runoff - nearly double from 2010 to 2013.
In the next two years, $135 million from the Clean Water Fund - more than 60 percent of its payouts - is scheduled to be spent on projects designed to keep contaminated water from reaching lakes and streams.