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Minnesota Legislature Protects Public Waters Statewide

Clarifies public waters definition and funds comprehensive update to Public Waters Inventory

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA – A compromise that emerged in the final days of the Minnesota

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA – A compromise that emerged in the final days of the Minnesota Legislature will protect public waters across Minnesota. The supplemental environment and natural resources budget bill (HF 3911) included clarification of the definition of public waters and eight years of funding to comprehensively update the Public Waters Inventory statewide.

This comes after a 2022 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in favor of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and Protecting Public Waters (PPW), a group of local residents who opposed a proposal to ditch the upper reach of Limbo Creek in Renville County. That decision affirmed that Limbo Creek is a “public water” because it meets the definition in Minnesota statute. But the Court asked the Minnesota Legislature to clarify whether our state’s statute or the Public Waters Inventory (PWI), a list created in the 1980s, should control when there is a discrepancy between the two. Limbo Creek, as well as many other waterways, were erroneously omitted from the PWI, which led to confusion about its legal status. The impact of the clarification is wide-reaching, affecting at least 640 miles of other waterways across the state.

Rep. Kirsti Pursell (DFL-Northfield) and Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton) introduced legislation (HF 3385 / SF 3558) to clarify that a public water that meets the definition in statute is protected, even if a waterway was erroneously left off the PWI. House Committee Chair Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) included the clarification in a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Tim Walz last week.

The law also includes $8 million in funding to comprehensively update the PWI over the next eight years. Some agricultural lobby groups argued that the PWI should be updated to provide certainty for farmers and landowners, instead of relying solely on the definition in statute. In response, legislative leaders and Governor Walz expanded the fiscal target for the budget bill and now the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will use that funding to update the forty-year old PWI with up-to-date technology.

The compromise was lauded by Carly Griffith, water director for MCEA, which brought the Limbo Creek lawsuit targeting waters that were erroneously deprived of protections:

“This compromise is a win-win. All Minnesotans can now rest assured that public waters, which belong to all of us by law, will have protections; and those folks whose industries are affected by the designation will get an updated inventory map showing exactly which waters are included.”

MCEA was grateful to work with leaders like Rep. Kristi Pursell (DFL-Northfield) to get these public water protections enshrined in state law.

“I’m incredibly proud of the change to the definition of public waters that made it over the finish line this Session,” said Rep. Kristi Pursell (DFL-Northfield). “I fought for this provision to be included in the final environment bill and appreciate House Environment committee chair Rick Hansen, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, and Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy for their dedication to following through on what the Minnesota Supreme Court told us we needed to do in order to make clear what waters belong to every Minnesotan.”

Local residents and Minnesota River advocates who were involved in the Limbo Creek lawsuit that brought this issue to the forefront of public attention are enthusiastic about this outcome as well.

“Public water in Minnesota belongs to all of us, it needs to be treated as if it were our gold,” stated Scott Sparlin, Executive Director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River. “The decision reached by the Minnesota Supreme Court in the Limbo Creek case along with the subsequent clarification of statutory language by the legislature this past session affirms why the scientific definition of public water is the most fail-safe, simplistic, commonsense way to guide the future management of all public water in our state.”

“This clarification is long overdue,” added retired conservationist Tom Kalahar.

The Public Waters Inventory (PWI) update process will begin this summer.


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