WASHINGTON – When Ely resort owner Jane Koschak looks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new clean water rule, she sees safeguards for her tourism business.
When Cass County cattle rancher Miles Kuschel looks at the same rule, he sees a threat to his livelihood.
The rule, according to the EPA, “protects streams and wetlands that are scientifically shown to have the greatest impact on downstream water quality and form the foundation of our nation’s water resources.”
What constitute “waters of the U.S.” subject to government scrutiny now extends not just to navigable rivers and lakes, but to 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands.
That has put two of Minnesota’s most vital economic engines on a collision course.
Minnesota’s $22 billion-a-year agriculture industry has declared war on the new construct. Since the clean water rules became public, farmers and farm groups around the state have issued dire predictions of government meddling in private business.
“The Supreme Court said the EPA had no power over nonnavigable waters,” Kuschel said. “If they do, they can control land use.
“I really don’t know if I will need a permit to graze my cattle next to a stock pond on my property or if I need a permit for my cattle to cross a low lying area that is only wet during the spring time.”
The state’s $13 billion-a-year tourism industry has fired back, pointing to degrading water quality in some of the state’s iconic waters caused by fertilizer and animal waste.
“People don’t want to see slime,” said Koschak, who has run the River Point Resort in Ely for 39 years. “For recreation and tourism, the only thing we can count on is clean water. People aren’t going to come here if our waters are polluted.”
The actual impact of the new EPA rules in Minnesota is questionable. Groups like Environment Minnesota say the federal rules are critical because 51 percent of the state’s streams are no longer protected by the EPA. Without strong federal rules, said Environment Minnesota lawyer John Rumpler, citizens will not be able to hold the state legally accountable if it drops the ball on pollution control.
State officials say Minnesota’s pollution control laws are already stronger than the federal government’s when it comes to overseeing remote sources of water pollution. The state has never felt hindered by the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that restricted EPA’s jurisdiction over some remote streams and wetlands that might carry pollutants to lakes and rivers, said Katrina Kessler of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Kessler doesn’t “see any additional regulatory authority in Minnesota” coming from the new EPA rules.
“We’ve been hearing this rhetoric for months,” she said of the fight over the EPA rules. “But we’ve been doing this for years.”
For its part, EPA emphasizes that “activities like planting, harvesting, and moving livestock have long been exempt from Clean Water Act regulation, and the Clean Water Rule doesn’t change that.”
Kessler said the agriculture industry’s complaints that the new rules could force farmers to go through additional, time-consuming permitting processes to grow crops or graze cattle do not reflect the law.
“Farmers or landowners are asked to comply voluntarily with best practices,” she said. “We don’t have the authority to issue permits to agricultural land owners.”
But Kevin Paap, a Blue Earth County corn and soybean farmer who serves as president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, insisted that while farmers support the goal of clean water, the EPA rules “add another level of burdensome regulation.”
Regardless of their literal affects, the clean water rules have become a political litmus test much like support for the Keystone pipeline. The rules, which will require congressional action to overturn, measure the political clout of the agriculture and environmental lobbies.
That has led Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, to hedge on taking positions the new rules. Both Democrats say they are studying them. So is Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, though he is likely to oppose legislation to overturn them.
Other Minnesota representatives in the House have expressed various levels of outrage and endearment.
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who voted to block the new rules, offered this explanation to the Star Tribune:
“Everyone wants clean water and everyone wants a safe, abundant supply of food. We cannot have one without the other, so we need to examine how the rule will affect our ability to accomplish both goals.”
Republicans John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer and Democrat Collin Peterson offered stronger denunciations. Paulsen’s statement to the Star Tribune was typical of opponents.
“It’s common sense that Washington shouldn’t be regulating puddles, ponds, and ditches in the driveway or our back yards,” he said. “We can ensure access to clean water without heaping hundreds of pages of new rules and regulations on family farmers, ranchers, and small businesses.”
Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison were equally passionate in backing the EPA.
“The EPA’s new rule simply extends their efforts to ensure that access to clean water is preserved for all Americans,” McCollum said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “Protecting our state’s waters from pollution is of critical importance to our public health, our environment, agricultural community and outdoor recreation community … The notion that cleaner, clearer water would do harm to any industry in our state is simply ridiculous.”
Explore Minnesota, the state’s main tourism advocate, has not taken an official position on the EPA rules. But the tourism agency strongly backs pollution controls that reach beyond navigable waters.
“It’s really important that clean water is preserved for recreational travelers,” Explore Minnesota director John Edmond said in an interview. “Whether or not you can put a boat in a particular waterway, it’s still part of the product that makes Minnesota unique.”
The health of Minnesota’s navigable waters is inextricably linked to the watersheds that feed them, said Lee Ganske, who monitors water quality for the state pollution control agency.
“The science can be summarized best with the phrase that it’s all connected,” he explained. “Some of the trends on farms and ranches pose significant threats to our water bodies over time. But there is a significant lag between what’s happening on the ground and when it hits bodies of water.”
This is why Scott Christle, manager of the Cottage Grove Resort in Alexandria, signed a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging her to invoke the new rules.
“I know down south, some of the lakes are not usable because of runoff,” he said.
An April 2015 MPCA report concluded that half the lakes in watersheds dominated by agricultural and urban land were not “swimmable” because of algae. The same report pointed to higher levels of fish-damaging nitrogen and fecal-related bacteria in the waters of agricultural and urban areas.
At her resort in Ely, Koschak looks for help in the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by Minnesotans in 2008.
But she’s also looking to the commitment that she thinks the new EPA rules embody.
The state’s lakes “aren’t as clean as they used to be,” she said. “It is cheaper to prevent pollution than to clean it up.”
Agriculture vs. tourism
The waters of the Minnesota River, right, join the Mississippi. Two industries share a large stake.