ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton asked more than 800 people attending his inaugural Water Summit on Saturday to brainstorm ideas for solving Minnesota’s water quality challenges, but not before opponents of the proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline interrupted his remarks to urge him to play a greater role in scrutinizing the project.
Just after Dayton took the stage in a downtown hotel ballroom, the megaphone-wielding protesters joined him on the stage, holding banners that said, “Love Water Not Oil.” They also said tribes should have been given a more prominent role in the summit, since the pipeline would cross sensitive lands and wetlands that are important to Minnesota’s Ojibwe Indian bands.
The 616-mile Sandpiper would carry North Dakota crude oil across northern Minnesota to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Dayton agreed to meet with the protesters after his speech and they quietly left the stage after a couple of minutes. But the incident illustrated how deeply many Minnesota residents treasure their water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“This summit isn’t about assessing blame,” Dayton said. “It’s about developing solutions.”
Dayton unveiled no new proposals Saturday. Instead, his hope was to see what themes emerged from the freewheeling discussions that might be translated into specific initiatives, probably not in time for the upcoming legislative session, which starts early next month, but in the future.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr noted just before the summit that one of the governor’s key environmental successes — stronger requirements for strips of protective vegetation between farm fields and ditches and streams — bubbled up from Dayton’s Pheasant Summit in 2014.
Addressing pollution from agriculture, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer runoff, which has proven politically difficult for government agencies to regulate, was one of main undercurrents of the summit. The meeting brought together people from government agencies; university experts; members of farm, environmental and conservation groups; and various concerned citizens.
“It shouldn’t be necessary for governors or legislators to tell farmers what to do. They know what to do better than anybody else on their own farmlands. We just need for all of them to do it,” Dayton said to applause. “That describes a paradox for water quality — those who are the sources of the problems are also the sources of their solutions.”
The heart of the gathering was a series of brainstorming sessions on a broad range of critical water quality issues. One of the most popular topics was water in the rural environment. Small-group discussions on holding water on the land — a key strategy for keeping contamination from fertilizers and manure out of ditches, streams and lakes — brought up barriers to solutions, such as tight funding and outdated regulations.
Staffers from the governor’s office and state agencies took detailed notes. Potential solutions discussed included keeping more green cover plants on farm fields and other lands for more of the year instead of leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion.
David Lick of the Itasca Water Legacy Partnership said during one of the discussions that the Dayton administration needs to be careful not to frame water quality as a metro versus rural issue.
“Most farmers are really good stewards,” he said.
Dayton later said he plans to hold a Water Action Week in April, to get residents more engaged in water issues. He said it’s crucial for citizens to understand water problems and know what they can do locally to be part of solutions.
“We’ve got to find a way to keep this momentum going,” Dayton said.
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