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Proposed bill gives University $650,000 to create state clean water plan

The bill was included in the House omnibus bill and would require the University to create a clean water plan for the next 50 years.
Image by Alice Bennett
Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law on Thursday.

A bill that would give the University of Minnesota $650,000 to conduct a clean-water study for the state was introduced to the House Higher Education Committee on March 22 and included in the first version of its omnibus bill, which was released April 4.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Kelly Morrison, would require the University to create a 50-year comprehensive clean-water plan. If passed, the study would be completed by the end of 2023. Morrison said the bill would focus on drinking water, but “it also applies to clean lakes and rivers and bodies of water.”

An omnibus bill is a large bill composed of many smaller bills. The text of the House bill was adopted on April 6.

In northern Minnesota, where heavy mining and other industrial activities have taken place, bodies of water like the St. Louis River tend to have higher amounts of contaminants, like mercury, dioxins and other toxins. The Mississippi River, another important body of water in Minnesota, is also highly polluted, according to the National Parks Service.

However, recent studies by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) concluded that select contaminants, such as lead, have gone down in water and have remained comparatively low since the 1990s.

“When you ask a question like, ‘How is the water?’ the answer is confoundingly complex,” said Paul Gardner, administrator of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Clean Water Council. “The data that’s been collected is actually very specific to different parts of the state. In general, we have a lot of impaired waters, but we have a lot of water that’s in good shape.”

Morrison said she introduced this bill because of accelerating climate change. According to a climate summary by MDH, climate change would increase chances of floods while concurrently decreasing overall water levels.

“In an age of accelerating climate change and increasing water scarcity, we have to right now plan about how we’re going to manage this precious natural resource, both for the people of Minnesota and for downstream communities,” Morrison said.

The University is often a designee for the legislature on research topics when they want to receive a study on a topic that could be considered political. This is because both political parties see the University as an important asset due to its water resources, according to Gardner.

Since the University is independent from the state government, the governor could not affect the outcome of study in the same way he could if the study was done by a state agency. The governor, as head of the executive branch, would affect the outcome of studies because of his ability to influence what an agency could or could not research.

“Water and all of the issues around in our state are so politicized. I thought the best way to create an evidence-based, as close to a political nonpartisan plan as possible, would be to do it through an academic institution,” Morrison said as to why she chose the University to conduct the study.

Dr. Kristen Nelson, a professor of environmental sociology at the University, said a study of this size and scope would likely be one that pulls existing data together instead of doing new research because of the timeline of the study.

“There’s likely a team here that could put a benchmark study together,” Nelson said.

Morrison said this bill is integral to the quality of life for Minnesotans in the years to come.

“We need to do everything we can to be ready for that,” Morrison said, referring to climate change. “Water is life. We need water to survive.”

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