Conservation groups: Is clean water Legacy money making a difference?

By Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul, Minn. – Ensuring water projects funded through the state’s Legacy Amendment are making a difference — and proving it to the public — is a major challenge, conservationists and those who oversee Legacy money acknowledged.

About 300 Legacy stakeholders, including conservation groups, legislators and state officials, gathered Thursday in St. Paul to hear how Legacy money has been spent so far on clean water, the outdoors and parks. The annual forum’s goal is to ask whether Legacy money is going to projects and programs as voters expected.

Most of the attention was directed at the Clean Water Fund, which receives about a third of the sales tax revenue generated from the constitutional amendment approved by Minnesota voters in 2008.

Gene Merriam, president of the Freshwater Society, pointed to several reasons to question whether past funds for water projects are being spent effectively. That included a failed cleanup plan on Lake Independence and a report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showing only moderate improvements on the Minnesota River over the last 20 years, he said.

“That report tells us we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and have very little to show for it,” Merriam said. “We need to do better over the next two decades and better target our resources.”

Measuring whether the water projects actually accomplish what they’re supposed to isn’t easy, said Keith Hanson, chairman of the Clean Water Council that oversees Legacy clean water money.

“This is a very significant thing that’s on the minds of all the council members,” Hanson said.

The MPCA will soon have its first performance report on the Clean Water Fund, Commissioner Paul Aasen said.

“We’re only a few years into this, science takes time, but after three sampling seasons we can start to tell more of a story,” he said.

Those who implement projects including rain gardens, drainage ditches and buffer strips near farms said members of the public need to be patient.

“Everybody wants instant gratification,” said Tom Kalahar of the Renville Soil and Water Conservation District. “It’s going to take many, many, many years to fix the landscape.”

The needs far exceed the available funds, Kalahar said. For example, Renville County has spent $1 million to create about 21 miles of drainage ditch buffers since the Legacy Amendment went into effect. But the county needs up to 1,700 miles of such buffers, he said.

“We need about $99 million to get this job done,” Kalahar said. “It’s going to take us a while.”

NO LEGACY FOR VIKINGS

Two lawmakers who oversee Legacy funding reiterated their opposition to using any Legacy funds for a new publicly-funded stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said they’ll fight any such proposal.

“It’s still out there; it’s still active,” Ingebrigtsen said of the view that the Vikings are part of Minnesota’s heritage and should qualify for Legacy funds. “We ought to step up and say ‘No, that’s not what we voted for.'”

Urdahl’s statement was greeted by applause in the Crown Plaza Hotel’s ballroom: “No, there won’t be any Legacy money going to a Vikings stadium,” he said.

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