ST. PAUL - A long-standing method of protecting wild rice from toxic water, which has not been enforced, may be on its way out for a new method.
A Minnesota House committee Thursday, March 8, voted to dump a 1973 rule that limited sulfate in water to 10 milligrams per liter. Instead, bill author Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said, wild rice would be protected from a variety of threats, not just sulfate.
Also, his bill would establish a working group to deliver suggestions to legislators early next year about how state law should be changed to protect wild rice.
Environmentalists complained that Lueck's legislation simply removes most state protection. Communities and businesses in the northern Minnesota area where wild rice grows, especially around the Iron Range, said it would cost them millions of dollars for sewage treatment facilities if current law were enforced.
The Legislature often debates the issue, at times making changes or limiting the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's ability to enforce the 10mg limit.
At Thursday's meeting, the agency's chief lawyer refused to comment on Lueck's bill.
Lueck and Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, presented the bill together, encouraging support of the year-long study. While the committee approved spending $50,000 for the work, the general feeling among members appeared to be that the amount needed to grow to $500,000 for a study to be complete enough to help.
"Obviously, we will be discussing the dollar amount all the way up to when the governor signs the bill," Lueck said.
The 10mg standard has not been enforced since it was written in 1973, Lueck said. "We are trying to move in a direction where we know we can make a difference in improving wild rice."
He compared what he wants to happen with wild rice to state success in protecting wetlands. State law requires wetlands to be protected, the representative said, but does not specify numerical guidelines.
Being less specific in law, Lueck added, allows a wider range of projections. "The task here is to refocus on protecting wild rice by considering the hydrological, biological and physical risk to wild rice health."
Lueck said his bill even would require protecting rice invasive species that threaten the grain.
Many who testified said new science shows that sulfate above the 10mg standard does not hurt wild rice.
Don Arnosti of the Izaak Walton League urged the committee to find a common interest after years of dispute. "We have spent almost a decade walking down two different paths."
But there appeared to be little movement toward each other.
Sharon Day of the Indigenous People's Task Force and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa said she considers the Lueck bill "an attack on the Ojibwe people" who depend on wild rice for food, money and spiritual needs.
Kathryn Hoffman of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said there are no easy answers to the question about protecting wild rice, but "the Legislature is not a good forum for doing scientific work."
She said that Lueck's bill, if it becomes law, would make the situation unclear. "The only certainty of this bill is that it will bring litigation."
Northern Minnesota business and community representatives said the current regulations would bring economic problems to the area.
"It would create economic despair among the 51 communities," said Steve Giorgi of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.
Costs to clean water discharges to meet the 10mg limit are not known, he said, but Giorgi and others said it would be in the millions of dollars per plant.
Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the 10mg rule is not scientific and that in his experience water level is more important to a good rice stand than limiting sulfate.
While wild rice water standards have been controversial, they became even more uncertain in January when a state administrative law judge rejected a new standard the Pollution Control Agency wanted to implement to replace the 10mg one. Lueck's bill would toss out the agency's rule-making work, although Lueck said a 2008 report would provide a good basis for new rules.
Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, carries a bill similar to the one Lueck authored.