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To protect wild rice, officials want to set pollution limits on lake-by-lake basis

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A new plan has been put forward to protect one of Minnesota's most famous foods – wild rice.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency this week released long-awaited recommendations on how to limit pollution in lakes where wild rice is grown around the state.

The biggest threat to growing wild rice is having excess sulfates in waters – mineral salts which, if combined with bacteria in lake beds, can create an inhospitable environment for the grain.

Particularly at risk are areas that also have a mining industry presence, or are near municipal wastewater treatment facilities and other industrial plants, as this increases the amount of sulfates entering waterways.

So what does the MPCA want to do about it?

Well, currently Minnesota has a one-size-fits-all limit on the amount of sulfates that are allowed in a body of water, which according to the Star Tribune stands at 10 parts per million a standard that was set in 1973.

According to MPR, concerns were raised in 2010 about how diligently the MPCA was enforcing the standard, and at that time the agency began asking mining companies to document wild rice plants where they discharge water.

But the MPCA says the impact of sulfates in water on wild rice growth varies from lake to lake, and thinks each lake where significant amount of wild rice is grown should be subject to its own limit on sulfates.

They have said that some water bodies could need stricter sulfate standards as low as 0.8 parts per million, while some lakes could take up to 140 parts per million without adversely affecting wild rice, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

The MPCA wants to carry out studies of each wild rice lake over the next two years to determine a safe sulfate level for each one.

Any changes to water quality rules in Minnesota will have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Impact on business

The MPCA's recommendations follow years of controversy over the state's wild rice-sulfate laws, which Gov. Mark Dayton this week described as "outdated" and potentially harmful to the mining industry on the Iron Range, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Environmental groups and tribal officials have been calling for the standard to be enforced by the EPA under the federal Clean Water Act, the newspaper reports, which could cost the mining industry "hundreds of millions of dollars."

The MPCA thinks its recommendation is a more comprehensive plan to protect wild rice stocks in the state, while not forcing businesses to follow rules that may not necessarily be necessary.

But while the reception from business has been one of cautious welcome, University of Minnesota Duluth wild rice researcher John Pastor told the Star Tribune the proposal is "scientifically indefensible."

He told the newspaper that conditions in wild rice waters can change from season to season, year to year, meaning any individual standards for lakes would soon be unsuitable.

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