Legislators hold drinking water protections hostage

by Trevor Russell

In a surprising move, GOP chairs of the Minnesota House and Senate made headlines by threatening to delay proposed drinking water protections if the governor fails to sign an unrelated ag policy bill.

The Groundwater Protect Rule: Protecting drinking water

The 1989 Groundwater Protection Act gives the state authority to protect our groundwater (the source of drinking water for about 75% of Minnesotans). This is a serious issue:

  • 537 public water supply wells across the state have elevated nitrate levels.
  • More than 50 communities in MN are facing significantly elevated nitrate levels. 

  • Nearly 10% of MDA-tested private wells in vulnerable areas exceed the Health Risk Limit (HRL), including some townships with 30-40% or more of private wells unsafe to drink.


To address this problem, the state has proposed a modest 2-part rule to require improved fertilizer management in the most vulnerable areas – using steps that many farmers already take. Legislation obstructing the rule was been included in several House and Senate bills.

Legislative threats

Multiple bills were introduced this session that aimed to block, delay or rollback the draft rules.  While these failed to become law, a new threat has emerged in the form of a little-known state statute.

Minnesota Statute section 14.126

An obscure provision in state law, Minnesota Statute section 14.126 was used to allow the House and Senate agricultural committees to delay enactment of the Groundwater Protection Rule unless their unrelated agricultural policy bill is signed by the governor.

Per the statute: “If the standing committee of the house of representatives and the standing committee of the senate with jurisdiction over the subject matter of a proposed rule both vote to advise an agency that a proposed rule should not be adopted as proposed, the agency may not adopt the rule until the legislature adjourns the annual legislative session that began after the vote of the committees.”

Enacting this provision would delay the rules until after the 2019 legislative session, well into the term of Minnesota’s next governor (who may or may not prioritize drinking water protection).

House and Senate committees have voted for the delay, but leaders have pledged to withhold the paperwork in exchange for the governor’s signature on an unrelated ag policy bill.

In other words: “that’s a nice drinking water rule you’ve got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Governor’s response

The Governor offered a scathing response to legislators, accusing the committee chairs of attempting to deny rural Minnesotans safe drinking water.

“By invoking Minnesota Statute 14.126, you are sending the strong message that citizens' voices do not matter, and that the Legislature intends to usurp the authority over what is supposed to be a public process.”

The Governor has instructed the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to proceed with the rulemaking process, setting up a potential legal showdown over drinking water protections in the year to come.

Rulemaking Continues

The groundwater protection rule development process remains underway, and FMR and our allies will be working with Minnesotans from across the state to ensure a strong rule that adequately protects our public and private wells from contamination.

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You can learn more about how Minnesota's environment and the Mississippi River fared this legislative session at our River Guardians happy hour, June 5. 

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