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Board: Minn. should have a say in water appropriation for Big Stone II

MONTEVIDEO -- The Minnesota River Board is repeating its plea to Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota to reconvene the Boundary Waters Commission.

Members of the joint powers board want Minnesota to have a say in the water appropriation requested for the Big Stone II coal-fired power plant. The board approved a resolution at its meeting Monday in Montevideo instructing executive director Shannon Fisher to contact the two governors about their request.

The interstate commission was established to deal with, among other issues, questions of water level in boundary waters that are artificially controlled.

Board members are also considering asking the 34 separate county boards in the basin to approve resolutions asking for a reconvening of the commission. Some of the member counties have approved resolutions supporting development of the Big Stone II plant. Those speaking at Monday's meeting emphasized that their request was to assure that Minnesota has a say in how water is taken from Big Stone Lake -- the headwaters of the Minnesota River -- and was not aimed at opposing the power plant project.

The appropriation approved for the plant could represent up to 20 percent of the flow into the upper Minnesota River, and its loss could significantly affect the river and Marsh Lake and Lac qui Parle Lake, according to information presented at the meeting. The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources has authorized Big Stone II to take up to 5.9 billion gallons of water per year from Big Stone Lake, and up to 3.3 billion gallons of groundwater. Minnesota did not have input in the decision.

The Minnesota River Board made a request to Gov. Pawlenty more than a year ago to reconvene the commission to discuss the Big Stone II water appropriation but have heard no response, according to Fisher, the board's director.

"I'll take another swing at getting his attention,'' Fisher said.

The resolution asking to reconvene the Boundary Waters Commission came board members reviewed concerns expressed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources about the water appropriation.

"Overall, the proposed (Big Stone II) project poses some serious and complex water resource concerns,'' stated Matt Langan, environmental planner with the Minnesota DNR, in a letter sent in December. The appropriation from Big Stone Lake could increase the probability of winter fish kills and anoxic conditions in the lake during low water periods, according to Langan.

Recreation could be adversely affected as well. Diane Rademacher, director of the Upper Minnesota Watershed District, said Big Stone Lake normally loses six inches of water to evaporation each summer. The appropriation would lower the summer lake level by another eight inches.

Rademacher said the district is looking at the possibility of forcing a reconvening of the Boundary Waters Commission by exercising its authority over the dam at the south end of Big Stone Lake.

Rademacher said the appropriation issued to Big Stone II prohibits it from taking water from the lake when the lake's water level drops to an elevation of 967 feet above sea level. Rademacher said the district could use its control over the dam to lower the lake level to 967 feet as leverage to give Minnesota input in the management of the water resource.

Concerns are surfacing about what the appropriation might mean downstream to walleye fishing in Lac qui Parle Lake or the largest pelican nesting colony in Minnesota on Marsh Lake. Fisher said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying modifications to the Marsh Lake dam as part of an effort to improve water quality in the two downstream lakes. The plans are now looking at the possibility that the Big Stone appropriation might reduce the water in Marsh Lake by 50 percent, he said.

Patrick Moore, director of Clean Up our River Environment in Montevideo, told the Minnesota River Board members that the Big Stone II water appropriation represents twice the quantity of water now used by all 16 ethanol plants in Minnesota.

Moore also emphasized that Minnesota regulators will be determining only whether to issue a permit for electric transmission lines needed for the power plant. Minnesota's only opportunity for input on the water appropriation has to come from the Boundary Waters Commission, which can only be reconvened by direction of the governor.