Lawmakers discuss giving DNR tighter grip on irrigation, industrial water use

State lawmakers today took up whether the Department of Natural Resources should have a tighter grip on water being pumped for irrigation and industrial use. 

DNR officials have recommended requiring tamper-proof flow meters to measure how much water farmers and industrial facilities are using. They also want to increase penalties for those who violate their permits or pump large amounts of water without a permit. The DNR made the recommendations in January and DNR manager Jason Moeckel presented them this morning at a hearing in the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.

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At least one Republican lawmaker was skeptical. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, criticized the recommendations, saying the DNR should first focus on working better with farmers. He said a new law change requiring preliminary approval from the DNR to drill new wells hasn’t been communicated very well.

“The agency is all messed up here in where they’re going,” he said. “Did you tell us about the importance and tell the producers that we’ve got a really serious thing going on here? We’re trying to figure out if what we’re doing is sustainable, and you need to realize that the past practices of just assuming that you get the permit may not be true. You’re not doing any education with us to talk to us.”

But committee chairwoman Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, praised the proposed measures, saying improvements are needed.

“I would agree that DNR has had trouble enforcing water laws and bringing information out to citizens because their budget was so dramatically cut,” she said.

The DNR’s budget was cut in 2011 when Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature.

A bill that would implement many of the DNR’s recommendations will get its first hearing Tuesday in the House Civil Law Committee. It will need to pass out of several other committees, including Wagenius’.

But first, Wagenius promised to allow more time for lawmakers, DNR officials and the public to discuss the policy recommendations when her committee finishes up its business Tuesday evening. McNamara has said he has several more questions for DNR staff about the agency’s priorities.