Legislators seek repeal of Mississippi River Critical Area program


Legislators in the Minnesota House and Senate are proposing a repeal of a decades-old program to protect the Mississippi River. HF95/SF39 would eliminate the Mississippi River Critical Area (MRCA), a program that since the 1970s has provided planning and management for the 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi from Ramsey in northern Anoka County to Hastings in southern Dakota County. River advocates say the repeal of the program could have significant impacts on the environmental and aesthetic benefits of the river.

The bill itself is very simple – “Minnesota Statutes 2010, section 116G.15, is repealed” – but the consequences will be serious if the bill is signed into law, according to Whitney Clark of the Friends of the Mississippi River.

“It would be a huge blow to the long-standing state commitment to protecting the river,” Clark told the Minnesota Independent. “It’s something that has had bipartisan support since the 1970s, and it would eliminate protections that the river has enjoyed for years.”

The MRCA was created in 1976 by DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson, continued by Republican Gov. Al Quie, and made permanent by the Metropolitan Council and the Legislature in 1991. The program has five purposes: to protect a valuable state resource, prevent damage to the river, enhance its public use, protect it as a transportation system and preserve the biology and ecology of the river.

Most of the legislators who have introduced the bill are from the northern part of the MRCA zone:  It was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Benjamin Kruse (R-Brooklyn Park), Michele Benson (R-Ham Lake), Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), Mike Jungbauer (R-Anoka), and Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), and in the House by Reps. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), Peggy Scott (R-Andover), Denise Dittrich (DFL-Champlin), Brandon Petersen (R-Andover), and Jim Abeler (R-Anoka). A group of property owners from that area have recently launched a petition drive to get the MRCA repealed.

The Mississippi River Stewards, which says the MRCA infringes on members’ property rights, are circulating a petition urging “the Governor and the Minnesota Legislature to repeal Minnesota Statutes Section 116G.15 that grants [Department of Natural Resources] authority to generate the Critical Corridor rules.”

The DNR is wrapping up a process of making new rules for the MRCA under the direction of the Minnesota Legislature. In 2009, lawmakers said that the DNR needed to reevaluate the program. The proposal the DNR came up with, after weighing the needs of many stakeholders from industry, homeowners and city administrators to biologists, sportsmen and environmental groups, seems to have angered just about everyone.

The DNR doesn’t have any law enforcement authority over those rules, however. It merely sets standards, leaving riverfront communities to propose, pass and enforce ordinances related to building height, recreation areas and riverbank stabilization.

But, the Mississippi River Stewards and area legislators are saying they want to scrap the program altogether over disagreements about the rule-making process.

“We feel that there are aesthetic motivations behind [the rules] that go above and beyond an environmental or preservation benefit, and that these aesthetic goals should not supercede property owners’ rights to use their property in a reasonable manner that was lawful when they acquired the property,” the Stewards note. “Though this may seem at first to only affect a small group, once put in place, it threatens the rights of all Minnesota citizens, by setting a precedent that demotes property owners to mere inhabitants of government-controlled lands which are subject to de facto confiscation at any time via zoning and use regulations.”

Whitney at the Friends of the Mississippi River said his group is not happy with everything about the rule-making process either, but that is an issue when dealing with a diversity of stakeholders.

Still, he contends the MRCA remains important.

“It’s the first line of defense in protecting the river corridor,” said Clark. A repeal of the program “would eliminate the potential for the state to update common sense rules.”

He added, “What we want is a river that is as healthy or even healthier than it is today so that people eat the fish they catch or enjoy the scenery.”

The state so far has spent $500,000 in evaluating the program and the rule-making process.