Land of the Turd Brown Waters

Shit happens: After last week's heavy rains, thousands of gallons of raw sewage entered the Mississippi from this drain
Michael Tortorello

On June 24, with the wrangling from the legislative session at last behind him, Governor Tim Pawlenty took advantage of a lull in the news cycle for some textbook image softening. It wasn't billed as image softening, of course; it was "a major policy speech." And that it might serve to shore up support among one of his target constituencies--environmentally conscious but otherwise conservative suburbanites--well, chalk that up to a happy coincidence.

More specifically, Pawlenty unveiled a broad and ambitious plan to clean up the state's polluted lakes, rivers, and groundwater. While no firm dollar commitment was made, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimated the task could cost as much as $3 billion over 20 years. That's just a guess. As the MPCA itself admits, the agency has assessed only 5 percent of the state's river miles and 12 percent of its lakes. Already it has compiled a list of nearly 1,800 "impaired waters."

Even Pawlenty's critics acknowledge that the governor said a lot of the right things in his speech. He identified the breadth of the problem. He spoke of the many causes. And he tossed out several intriguing proposals, including the creation of a "Clean Water Cabinet," to be filled by top administration officials; the development of a new long-term funding mechanism for clean water operations; and the expansion of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which has been crucial in reducing the harmful runoff from farms.

Pawlenty also said he would seek to eliminate one chronic and especially foul problem: the incidence of raw sewage spills in the urban stretches of the Mississippi River. "It would be a crime if we didn't push hard to make this special river the water resource we want it to be for Minnesota," he declared.

In a fitting punctuation to the remark later that same day, a torrential rainfall caused seven of eight sewer overflow pipes in Minneapolis to dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage into the big river. The precise quantity of the spill could not be determined because the monitoring equipment failed. But the cause was perfectly well understood: After nearly two decades of work, the city of Minneapolis has yet to finish separating its storm sewers and sanitary sewers. Hard rains, hence, result in sewage spills.

Given the obvious need for action--and perhaps anxious to get along with the new governor--environmental activists generally responded favorably to Pawlenty's clean water initiative. Meanwhile, both daily newspapers ran enthusiastic accounts of his speech. In the Star Tribune's case, that piece followed an earlier story touting Pawlenty's supposed "green streak."

But is there any real reason to believe the governor means what he's saying? That he will he overcome his fealty to fiscal austerity to pay for the hard work necessary to fix the state's waters?

His record provides ample grounds for skepticism. In 2002, Pawlenty's last year as majority leader in the House of Representatives, the League of Conservation Voters gave him just 25 out of a possible 100 points on its annual environmental score card. (He got similarly low marks from the Sierra Club.) While crediting Pawlenty for supporting two clean water measures that year, the League's report noted that Pawlenty voted against a law giving the Department of Health a mandate to test for pesticides in groundwater. The measure, authored by a fellow Republican, passed anyway.

More significantly, that same session Pawlenty opposed a bill that would have given the Public Utilities Commission more authority to force power-plant operators to reduce smokestack emissions--the major cause of mercury pollution, the most ubiquitous water quality problem in the state. That measure failed by just two votes.

Don Arnosti, the water campaign coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, says Pawlenty's behavior as a lawmaker typically revealed him to be a good soldier for the party first, environmentalist second. "He was very much a team player and so his record was poor on environmental and water issues," Arnosti observes. "In his last year, when it was very much on his mind that he was running for governor, he did begin to step away from the caucus some."

Still, Arnosti notes, Pawlenty's budget proposals as governor hit some environmental programs hard. The MPCA, already reeling from years of budget slashing and layoffs, sustained a 20 percent cut, per Pawlenty's recommendation. The governor also sought to entirely eliminate funding for a much-lauded local water management and planning program, Arnosti says. "This program had an incredible bang for the buck. In Grant County, it brought in $11 million in federal funds, which was used to get local farmers to add buffer strips. And that resulted in startling improvements in water clarity."

It was only after vigorous opposition--and crucial support in the House of Representatives--that the administration finally relented and agreed to restore two-thirds of the program funding, Arnosti says.

Elsewhere, Arnosti and his fellow lobbyists had less success, as a total of nearly $40 million of dedicated environmental funds were permanently diverted to other uses, mainly to reduce the budget deficit.

Kris Sigford, the water policy director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says she is "pleased by the high level of attention" Pawlenty now seems to be giving water quality. But she too has doubts. In 1992, she recalls, then-Governor Arne Carlson made a similar splash with a proposal to make the badly degraded Minnesota River swimmable and fishable in 10 years. Twelve years and $1.2 billion later, improvements have been made. Yet the river is still not considered clean enough for either swimming or fishing.

That experience, says Sigford, illustrates how difficult and expensive it can be to fix polluted waters. The Minnesota River, she hastens to add, is something of a special case. Agriculture is the largest, most intractable cause of so-called "non-point source" water pollution in the state, and the Minnesota River's watershed lies almost entirely in farm country. Which is why the involvement of agricultural interests is so important.

For Pawlenty's clean water speech, Sigford observes, the commissioners of many of the relevant agencies were on hand, from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Health to the MPCA. "Pretty much all the upper folks were there, except for the Department of Agriculture. There was nobody at that level there from Ag. We can't do this without them, and it doesn't look like they were at the table."

However, there were plenty of industry representatives at the table for Pawlenty's big speech, which was delivered at a meeting of the Minnesota Environmental Initiative. Despite its name, the MEI is underwritten chiefly by big business, including some of the state's most notorious polluters, such as Flint Hills Resources. In 1998, that company--then known as Koch Petroleum Group--paid a $6.9 million fine for air and water pollution at its Rosemount refinery, the largest such penalty in state history.

Sol Simon, the executive director of the Winona-based Mississippi River Revival, thinks that more "partnering" with polluters may not be the best approach. "Basically the policy of the MPCA and other agencies to date has been to weaken the Clean Water Act, and we see polluters get allowed to discharge more and more pollutants because the agencies don't want to take on powerful interests," Simon contends. "In the end, we're not going to be able to buy our way out of this problem. The state needs to rely more on enforcing the laws we have."

If Pawlenty follows through on his promises, Simon acknowledges, it would represent a significant departure from practices of the past. But, he notes, positive rhetoric is nothing new.

"I hope he means what he says," Simon adds. "But I'm not holding my breath. To me, it looks like a promise from a politician."

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