Phosphorus, pharmaceuticals, frogs, and Legacy Amendment funding for Minnesota water protection


The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment approved by voters in November 2008 set aside an estimated $80 million-plus dollars annually to test, protect, and restore lakes and rivers in Minnesota. With funding from the tax revenue starting to kick in this year, some citizens wonder where that money is going towards for clean up and restoration efforts.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, who chairs the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division in the Minnesota House, helped shed some light on the numerous and varied efforts funded by the amendment during an April 6 forum on urban water pollution. The discussion was one of a series of talks organized by the Minneapolis League of Women Voters along with local environmental groups to highlight water pollution issues and solutions in Minnesota.

Wagenius early on pointed out that the legislature had to quickly set up new standards and measurements for the health of state rivers and lakes, given many standards had not been updated since the federal Clean Water Act was signed into law in the 1970s. High phosphorus levels, algae blooms, and sewage, she noted, are on-going problems being addressed by government agencies. But the challenge for this decade and beyond, she said, is recognizing contaminants that have only recently started being measured.

“Pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters … we can’t see those,” Wagenius said. “They are the 2010 problems.”

Studies have traced these contaminants to remnants of birth control and other drugs lingering in sewage and not completely removed by waste treatment facilities. One startling visible symptom of these contaminants in Minnesota rivers and lakes (and in other states) is the increased feminization of fish, whereby hormones and other pollutants appear to be changing the sexes of certain fish species.

“If it can do that to fish,” Wagenius said, “just think what it could be doing to humans.”

She said one major way to address the problem with Legacy funding is updating the waste water treatment systems, which she believes are too antiquated. According to Wagenius, the legislature plans to enlist the help of the civil engineering department of the University of Minnesota to develop new waste treatment facility designs that will filter these endocrine disrupters from entering the water system.

Millions of dollars are funding other studies and testing, including monitoring wells to see how far aquifer levels have dropped in different areas.

Legacy money will also fund infrastructure projects that help keep surface water from draining too quickly into lakes and streams. Scientists and experts have discovered it is better to have surface water absorbed into the earth rather than having it wash over the ground and carry pollutants along with it into the bodies of water.

Wagenius said many communities have put in requests to fund their own watershed projects. “There was a huge request for dollars even though people said no one would even apply for it because it’s so early in the process,” she said.

Taking an even longer view of the benefits of the Legacy amendment, Wagenius says it is essentially funding a 25-year study that will create a framework for sustainable water use in the state.