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Concern over Gov. Rounds' Minn., S.D. boundary waters ruling

MANKATO -- Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota has turned down the Minnesota River Board's request to reconvene the Minnesota-South Dakota Boundary Waters Commission.

The River Board, which represents 34 Minnesota counties in the Minnesota River basin, wants the commission to discuss how water appropriations for the proposed Big Stone II coal plant project could affect the river.

The governor wrote that he sees "no need to reconvene'' the commission in a March 26 letter addressed to Shannon Fisher, executive director of the Minnesota River Board.

Rounds stated that the permits for the power plant project have already been awarded in accordance with due process.

And, the governor stated that the Boundary Waters Commission "has no jurisdiction" over the permits.

Fisher said that he is all the more convinced that opening discussions between the two states would be beneficial.

In his letter, the South Dakota governor pointed out that the water appropriation permits for the Big Stone II power plant are based on 1939 legislation. It requires Big Stone Lake to be managed at an elevation of 967 feet during the May-through-October period. That is one foot lower than the current management practice.

Fisher said he is concerned that the lower elevation of 967 and water appropriations for the power plant will be harmful to the river as far downstream as the mouth of the Yellow Medicine River. The number of days that the flow into the Minnesota River drops below a critical level will be greater, said Fisher.

He also believes that South Dakota officials will be hearing concerns from landowners on both sides of the 26-mile-long, border lake. If the lake is managed for a lower elevation, there will be a significant increase in the amount of exposed shoreline on the northern half of the basin due to the slope there. It raises the possibility of cattail-lined lake lots and docks that will have to be extended many feet to reach deeper water, according to Fisher.

In his three-page letter, Rounds pointed out that plans for drawing water from the lake are based on a model developed by Barr Engineering of Minnesota on 70 years of water-flow data. The modeling shows that the lake's average elevation over a 70-year period would be decreased by only 2½ inches due to power plant usage, according to the governor.

Rounds also charged that Minnesota had ample opportunity to voice its concerns in the permitting process. He also noted the restrictions placed on water appropriations in the permits, and the plans to tap groundwater in Grant County, S.D., as a supplemental source of cooling water for the power plant.

Fisher said that Minnesota officials had hoped to have more input, but South Dakota's permit process allowed only parties represented by attorneys to provide input at hearings. That greatly restricted the input that was offered, he said.

He also expressed concerns that the modeling used for the project does not include data from the drought years of the 1930s. The omission is critical, he noted. And while the "average'' reduction to the lake's elevation may not be great, Fisher said that short-term but significant drops at critical times can cause serious and lasting harm to aquatic life.

The Minnesota River Board has made clear that it is not opposed to the Big Stone II power project, said Fisher.

The River Board will continue to urge Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to ask for a reconvening of the Boundary Waters Commission, according to Fisher. He said staff with the governor's office told him that Pawlenty's office has twice expressed to Gov. Round's office its interest in reconvening the commission.