Wild rice rule unpopular

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency kicks off a week of public hearings Monday on changing a water quality standard that’s meant to protect wild rice, a proposal that has managed to anger environmentalists and industry alike.

The proposal would change Minnesota’s standard for sulfate discharges into waters where wild rice grows from the current flat limit of 10 milligrams per liter to a more complicated formula based on the characteristics of individual lakes and streams. Here’s a look at some of the issues:

Minnesota’s existing standard, adopted in 1973, is based on research from the 1930s and 40s that found wild rice doesn’t grow well in waters with higher sulfate levels.

When the state finally moved toward enforcing the standard several years ago, it triggered pushback from the iron mining industry and communities that operate wastewater treatment facilities. They said complying would be too expensive and challenged the validity of the old science.

The 2011 Legislature directed the state agency to study whether the old standard needed updating based on new science. The ensuing research found that sulfates by themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is that sulfates in the water get converted by bacteria in sediments into sulfides that are toxic to wild rice plants. The agency says the research also found that iron in sediments tends to neutralize sulfides, while organic carbon leads to more sulfides. The proposed rules are a lake-by-lake approach intended to limit sulfides to 120 micrograms per liter.

“We believe the changes we’re proposing are an innovative and precise approach to protecting wild rice,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine has said.

Wild rice, also called manoomin, is more than just an important food for American Indian tribes in the upper Midwest, it’s central to the Ojibwe migration story, which holds that their ancestors in the East were instructed by the Creator to go west to “where the food grows on the water.”