Minnesota lawmakers poised to stall groundwater rule

Minnesota’s Legislature on Saturday moved to stall implementation of a proposed rule aimed at mitigating elevated nitrate levels that can seep into drinking water in farm country.

The Republican-led agriculture committees in the House and Senate were deciding whether to invoke a seldom-used law to delay finalization of a rule that has been in the works since last year. Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration has been pushing the rule, basing its authority off the state’s 1989 Groundwater Protection Act.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Policy Committee approved the resolution on an 8-2 vote, which included support from some Democrats. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to meet Sunday to bring up the resolution.

Republicans stressed they weren’t killing the regulatory effort entirely, only forcing the Department of Agriculture to wait at least another year to finalize the rule. They said it wouldn’t have taken full effect for a few years anyway because the effort is laid out in stages.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said the Legislature is properly exercising its authority to “put the clutch in.”

“Now we’ve got a 30-year-old law, which is what you’re trying to move forward with,” Westrom told top Department of Agriculture officials. “That’s what gets the public very irritated when a law from 1989 is passed and somebody digs it out 30 years later and tries to go forward with more government involvement and intrusion in farming operations. All we’re asking for under this hearing today is to delay the rule implementation through the next legislative session.”

The proposed rule could eventually give regulators power to direct landowners to take steps to address high nitrate levels, including restricting fertilizer use. Elevated nitrate concentration in drinking water can alter oxygen levels in human blood and cause birth defects.

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman said the rule was shaped through public and farm group input, citing 17 listening sessions and hundreds of written comments.

“I’m deeply disappointed that you’re taking this action today,” Wohlman told members of the Senate’s agriculture panel, calling the move to delay the rule “unprecedented and unnecessary.”

An early draft of the rule was released last summer but a formal proposal wasn’t issued until this spring. A public comment period remains open, with more hearings scheduled to be held.

Sen. Bill Weber, the committee’s chairman, said too many questions remain to move ahead with the rule.

“We all care about the quality of water, that’s not the issue of debate here,” Weber, R-Luverne said.

Dayton blasted lawmakers for the move, writing in a letter prior to the votes that they were trying to “deny rural Minnesotans their rights to clean and safe drinking water.”