A rule protecting Minnesota's groundwater is 30 years in the making. Republicans are fighting it.

Water: who needs it? Right, Minnesotans?

Water: who needs it? Right, Minnesotans? Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Minnesota—especially southern Minnesota—has a nitrate problem.

Nitrates are commonly found in fertilizers, and when too much of them get into drinking water, it can cause a number of health problems in babies and pregnant women—including “blue baby syndrome,” which lowers the blood’s ability carry oxygen and can be fatal.

Almost 10 percent of the wells in vulnerable areas test above the healthy limit, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) says more than 50 Minnesota communities have "high" nitrate levels in their drinking water. In Winona County, where MEP director Steve Morse lives, 19 percent of the wells tested exceeded safe nitrate levels.

“It’s really a serious health crisis,” says Morse, who has been working on groundwater protection for nearly 30 years. Minnesota’s fight against fertilizer pollution began in earnest around 1989, with the passage of the Groundwater Act, which gave state government the authority to create a rule limiting usage of nitrogen fertilizer in places it could easily seep into the groundwater.

After rounds of public input, including 17 public meetings and more than 800 public comments from citizens, farmers, and landowners, a new groundwater protection rule has finally entered the final stages of approval and enactment. Or so it seemed.

The rule is still in the final stages, and it may be for a while. An unprecedented move by the majority Republican agriculture policy committees in the House and Senate may have stopped it in its tracks. A cadre of mostly Republican legislators were able to throw a never-before-seen stick between the spokes of that particular legislative bicycle, and that stick’s name is Section 14.126.

Here’s how it works. The statutes allow related policy committees in the House and Senate to put new rules up to a vote. If a majority agrees, they can put implementation of the rule on hold until the end of the following legislative session… which would be this time next year. No executive approval required.

The problem with the statute is that it means nine out of the 134 House members and eight out of 67 Senators can stop the implementation of a rule in its tracks, if they happen to be on the right committee. The move has never been used before. Nobody’s sure how this is going to go down—or if it’s going to go down.

“The governor’s office has said it has questionable constitutionality,” says Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture Susan Stokes. What actually happens next “may well have to be decided by a court.”

In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton called the Republicans move "politically motivated ... unfounded and detrimental to the public’s health," adding: "Minnesotans deserve the cleaner drinking water this long-overdue standard will certainly deliver."

A press release explaining the manuever said the intent delay would allow lawmakers to “further examine the issue during the 2019 session.”

“The fact is, there are a number of concerns over this rule that still need to be addressed,” said Rep. Paul Anderson, (R-Starbuck), chair of the House Agriculture Policy Committee. Some farmers had questionss about how the rule would affect fertilizer use, and there were “strong feelings” among lawmakers that the Legislature should get to take a pass at it, he said. Anderson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Morse doesn’t buy that this is about giving the rule more oversight.

“I think there is no good justification [for the delay]. This has been years in the making,” he says.

Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield), the Democratic lead on the House ag policy committee, thinks there’s another motive behind hitting the pause button: intimidation. Bly says Anderson wanted to make sure Dayton signed his ag policy bill, and was using the Groundwater Protection Rule as collateral; don’t shoot down my bill, and I won’t invoke Section 14.126.

“The committee chair explanation was that it would be a good compromise,” Bly says. “The thing is, usually a compromise is something where you have an agreement on both sides.”

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin), Democratic lead on another House agriculture committee, says usually she and her committee colleagues act in a fairly bipartisan, even “congenial" manner. Suddenly deploying a never-before-used statute to derail a rule 30 years in the making feels to her like a marked shift in their relationship.

“This also just changes the dynamics a bit on how we interact,” she says.

Not to mention it puts a long-embattled clean water rule on hold—indefinitely, if a Republican majority can keep voting it back onto the back burner, which they may or may not be able to do next session.

Morse is confident the rule will go ahead, in spite of the alleged delay. If everything goes ahead as planned, the hope is to have the rule wrapped up and ready for implementation by the end of this calendar year.

At least, Morse hopes it is. Dayton’s term ends in January. Whoever is in his seat next may see Section 14.126 a little differently.