Conservation Minnesota

Water as a Way of Life

More so than any other state, the quality and quantity of water in Minnesota is central to our way of life.  It helps define who we are and what we value.

Former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, 2003

After Tim Pawlenty won a close three-way race for governor with only 44% of the vote in 2002, he set a course in his administration that would be clearly viewed as a moderate in today’s tea party driven Republican politics. At that time he set out to establish himself as a true Minnesota governor by focusing on some of the icons that made Minnesota great. He wisely chose our lakes and rivers.

Up to this time Minnesota had been woefully behind in its obligations under the Federal Clean Water Act passed during the Nixon administration. The state had tested less than 10% of its lakes and of those lakes the water fell well below the minimum state standards in over 40%. The land of sky blue waters was turning a putrid slimy green.

In response Governor Pawlenty took a thoughtful long view and established what was known as the Governor’s Clean Water Cabinet in 2003. It was made up of the key state agency heads responsible for protecting our state’s 10,000 Lakes. This group was charged with the mission of ensuring that water would sustain healthy communities, identify threats to our precious lakes and motivate our state agencies to aggressively restore polluted waters.

This was a smart position for a Minnesota governor to take in order to connect with the broad majority of Minnesotans who place a high value on their lakes and rivers. Our pristine lakes and rivers provided many Minnesotans with jobs, help elevate our quality of life, supported an expansive recreational industry in fishing and wildlife and is the cornerstone of a $10 billion a year tourism economy. Protecting our lakes and rivers simply was a Minnesota value. Unfortunately, our lakes and rivers were facing increased pressure from development, pollution, and exotic species.

The momentum created by this effort in 2003 was partially responsible for development of a coalition of business, agricultural, local government and environmental organizations that came together to develop a framework to move Minnesota forward on cleaning up our lakes and rivers. This effort culminated in 2006 with the passage of the Clean Water Legacy Act. It was through this effort that Minnesota recognized the immense value of our water assets compared to other states and chose to become a national leader in preserving one of our economic engines.

Less than a decade later just as the Clean Water Legacy Act is beginning to go to work, a new group of Republican leaders are trying to cast a new vision for our state under what they entitled Reform 2.0. Led by the Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate, they are claiming they have crisscrossed the state picking up great ideas for moving Minnesota’s economy forward. Apparently they got their wires crossed on the question of water quality. Less than a decade after their former Republican leader identified preserving the pristine nature of our lakes as a significant economic asset and a Minnesota value, they seem to be going in the other direction.

As part of the reform package announced this week they want to go backwards on water quality issues with the statement “require agencies to keep clean water standards at the federal maximum”. In other words, instead of leading the nation and recognizing that we are an exceptional state with 10,000 lakes we should dumb our standards down to weaker federal standards. All the polling that Conservation Minnesota has ever done or seen on this subject clearly shows that Minnesotans expect their leaders to do more than just the bare minimum when it comes to our lakes and rivers. It is not clear who these Republican “reformers” were listening to, but it is not the vast majority of Minnesotans that value our special water resources and want to pass them on to our children and grandchildren in a better condition than we received them.

The good news is that this supposed reform is only one of some 40 other reforms they are suggesting for this upcoming session that starts next week. Even though the recent legislative deadlocks have gone against Minnesota’s values of getting along, it would be fair to say most Minnesotans, given their values on clean water, would probably tolerate a little legislative deadlock on the subject of dumbing down our water standards.

About John Tuma

John Tuma
John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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