Youth guest column: Why environmental legislation is important and what you should know

by Fiona Hatch

This is a guest blog post from Fiona, a Youth Empowerment Program participant this summer. Fiona wants you to get involved in legislative action for clean water and the environment. Here's her account of the impact of recent environmental legislation and the possibility for critical change this year and in the future.

* * * * *

The past few years have seen a surge in environmental advocacy. We, the general public, have begun to see and feel the effects of climate change and water pollution, and have spoken out. Petitions, rallies, and protests demanding action have spread rapidly across the world. Every day, more people are making environmentally conscious changes in their daily life — eating less meat, using reusable containers over single-use plastic, and turning off the faucet when brushing their teeth. However, there is one piece of the environmental movement that many do not pay attention to, and that is environmental legislation.

What happens in the Legislature has a huge impact on our environment. The bills that are being passed by the Minnesota legislators are what become the laws that restrict air and water pollution in our state. And although any change to lower our own individual pollution is helpful, the most effective way to stop widespread pollution is to restrict it at the state and congressional level.

So, if environmental legislation is such a big part of the action being taken to help our environment, what do you need to know about it?

Well, since this is the FMR Water Blog, let’s focus on important water legislation that has already passed and its impact thus far, what's happening in the legislature right now, and what you (yes, you!) can do to influence environmental policy.

Important Minnesota water laws

The Minnesota Legislature has been reviewing and passing bills on water policy, regulation, and management for decades. Here are a couple of bills that have already been passed by the legislature and what they have set out to do.

Groundwater Protection Act

The Groundwater Protection Act was initially passed in 1989, but it was only put into effect in 2019. It marked a precedent as the state finally took action to protect Minnesota’s groundwater against agricultural businesses, which is one of Minnesota’s biggest sources of water pollution!

Inside of this act are 10 separate articles relating to groundwater law. Since there is a lot packed inside this bill, we’ll only cover the basics of what this act does. The implementation of the Groundwater Protection Act has included: new or greater fees for water use, better monitoring of groundwater quality by state agencies (which includes a report on water quality status required from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency every five years), new criteria for identifying sensitive groundwater areas being put in place and enforced, and a plan for state agencies to follow should pollutants be detected in groundwater or a groundwater area be declared sensitive.

While there is still much work to be done to protect Minnesota’s groundwater (which is the majority of our drinking water!), this bill was extremely important in starting the conversation in the Legislature.

Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

The Minnesota Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1973 and has established statewide standards for the region’s rivers.

Six rivers, in particular, have been identified in this act — these being the Kettle, Mississippi, North Fork of the Crow, Rum, Minnesota, and Cannon rivers — and each has a specific set of rules and regulations for the water’s management. In this act, these rivers or river segments are declared either wild, scenic, or recreational, and rules regarding each river's water use, land use, and management and preservation are then created and enforced based on what each river needs.

Because of this bill, Minnesota’s rivers and streams have been better protected from pollution and waste dumping.

What’s happening now, summer 2020?

Minnesota's Legislature is expected to reconvene (most likely) for another special session. Here are a couple of bills or programs to keep an eye on. 

Protect our Environment Trust Fund 

In 1998, Minnesota voters approved the creation of a special lottery-funded stream of revenue for environmental protection, the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.  

As of this writing, this year's $61 million in proposed spending from this fund remains in limbo, as legislators were unable to agree to terms during the regular session or either of the first two special sessions.

A coalition of environmental groups (which includes FMR) is pushing legislators to pull the trust fund dollars into a separate bill that they can then approve during the next special session before the clock runs out and over 70 important environmental programs go without funding.

Minnesota Water Policy Upper Mississippi Watershed

Mid-July, the Subcommittee on Minnesota Water Policy met to discuss a potential new project: the Minnesota Water Policy Upper Mississippi Watershed program.

If approved, this new project would compile a complete list of preserved publicly- and privately-owned lands in the Upper Mississippi Watershed. With this information assembled, we could see how effective different conservation programs are and determine if they need more funding to protect our bodies of water.

The subcommittee didn't make any decisions regarding the program, which we expect to be discussed during the 2021 legislative session. 

How to get involved

So, how can you use your voice when it comes to environmental legislation? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Keep reading articles like these! It’s important to stay informed on what is coming in and out of the Legislature.
  2. Make or sign petitions. Petitions are a great way of not only spreading awareness but of making your single voice heard with only a quick google search and a couple of minutes of your time!
  3. Join the FMR River Guardians or other e-advocacy programs and email lists that keep you up to date on the legislative process as it's happening and make it easy for you to connect with your legislators when action is needed.
  4. Spread the word. The voice of the public in the legislative process matters more than it seems. And by keeping others aware of what’s going on in the Legislature and encouraging them to make their voice heard on environmental issues, you'll impact the bills being passed.
  5. Donate to organizations that influence environmental legislation, or who enforce it once it becomes law. Consider FMR and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Even though we as the general public may not be the ones writing and signing environmental bills into law, our opinion matters to the legislators who are passing these bills, and the impact of these environmental laws on our state’s environment is big! It’s important for us to know what is happening inside of the Legislature, so we can continue to spread the word about bills that would benefit our waters, and fight against those that would harm them.

Sources

* * * * *

What's the Youth Empowerment Program?

FMR created the Youth Empowerment Program to address the gap between environmental education and a career path in the environmental field.

While many high schools offer green teams or eco clubs, young people often don't have many chances to explore what a real career in the environmental field would look like. As an environmental organization, we wanted to use our resources to help address that gap, in turn growing a stronger, more equitable movement.

We provide paid job experience and foundational learning to a group of students curious about environmental career paths. Our hope is that, by completing the program, participants are more prepared for continued schooling in environmental subjects and have real work experience to lean on for future job opportunities in the field.