Governor Vetoes Rice Bill


Li Boyd Mille Lacs Band Member

Despite a veto of the so-called "wild rice bill" (HR 3280) by Governor Mark Dayton, state lawmakers were still pushing for changes to Minnesota’s water quality sulfate standard as the regular legislative session moved into its last day on Sunday, May 20. A conference committee chaired by Representative Dan Fabian (R) met that afternoon to approve revised wild rice sulfate language for HF 3422.

Gov. Dayton vetoed the second version of the bill on May 30, saying it would be “offensive to the native American tribes, who place great significance on wild rice. By contrast, the task force I am creating will provide the opportunity to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to work on practical measures to protect and restore wild rice.”

In the 1930s and ‘40s, John Moyle, a biologist working for the Minnesota Department of Conservation, observed that waters high in sulfate did not typically support large wild rice stands. This was the beginning of water quality sulfate stan- dards in the state of Minnesota, where wild rice is the state grain and a cultural staple for the Anishinaabe. Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. to have such a rule in place.

In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) institut- ed the federal Clean Water Act. Minnesota regulators proposed a standard of 10 milligrams per liter of sulfate discharged into water bodies that produce wild rice. That standard was ap- proved by the EPA and has been in place ever since.

The standard has rarely been enforced. The 1973 rule cast a spotlight on the mining industry and city wastewater facili- ties. Even with water treatment practices in place, most large facilities in the state continued to discharge water with sulfate levels many times higher than the standard. The only technology capable of cleaning discharge water well enough to satisfy the standard is reverse osmosis, which large industrial operations can afford but small northern Minnesota cities cannot.

During the last decade, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) began to reexamine its policy on enforcement
of the water quality standard. Legislators representing commu- nities that would be most heavily impacted by the hefty price tag introduced legislation in February of 2015 to prevent enforcement of the sulfate standard.

After a $1.5 million wild rice study mandated by the state, the MPCA generated several versions of a new rule based on a formula that would determine the sulfate limit based on multiple environmental factors at each lake site being evaluated. However, each new rule change was criticized by industry, environmental, and tribal groups alike. In August of 2017, an administrative law judge rejected the standard because the MPCA had not demonstrated sufficient need for the rule change, and the new rule was too complicated to be practical.

Shortly thereafter, Republican lawmakers, along with Democrats representing mining areas, introduced new legislation at- tempting to nullify the sulfate standard entirely. While Governor Mark Dayton promised not to sign the bill (HF 3280), those in favor of it continued to push for approval.

On May 9, 2018, Governor Dayton vetoed the bill, saying “it is an extreme overreach that eliminates important protection for wild rice, attempts to exempt Minnesota from the federal Clean Water Act, and ensures ongoing litigation.”

Following the veto, the Governor invited multiple stakehold- ers to meetings to resolve the sulfate issue. A revision was released May 16 for criticism from tribes and environmental groups. The language was revised again and was approved by the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee late Sunday, May 20. Gov. Dayton vetoed the bill 10 days later.