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Water study landed quietly, but helps shape debate

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Minnesota River
The Minnesota River's water quality has suffered as nutrients and sediment from farms and tributaries flow into it -- an issue raised in the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, a large report presented to the Legislature earlier this year.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

A year-and-a-half-long effort to create a way to maintain and improve Minnesota's beleaguered waters for decades to come landed without much of a splash when it was presented to the Legislature in January. 

But the study, led by a University of Minnesota researcher and involving scores of scientists, officials, farmers, businesses and other interested residents may nonetheless provide a framework for discussion and for a more integrated approach to dealing with state water problems.

Warning that complacency endangers Minnesota water, the report prioritizes more than 60 actions to protect water quality and quantity, tackling rivers, lakes, groundwater, drinking water, stormwater, farm and industrial use in the context of potential population and climate changes. Recommendations include changing the way the state allocates water to cities and industries, finding ways to involve farmers in solving pollution problems, addressing new contaminants and combining water and land use planning. 

Deborah Swackhamer
Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center, led the 18-month study that created a framework for sustaining Minnesota's water resources.
Photo courtesy the University of Minnesota

"We have a rare moment in history to make the changes needed to put Minnesota on the path to water sustainability," the report, directed by the university's Deborah Swackhamer, states. Very little happened after Swackhamer delivered the 150-page document to the Legislature. But Swackhamer says it has been informing water discussions, and state officials say that it is helping them take a more integrated approach to water problems. At this point, it is the most comprehensive assessment of water conditions in a state that considers water one of its most precious attributes.

The report was written at a time when many major state water problems, like untreated sewage and industrial effluents, have been addressed by efforts like the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Mississippi River, for example, once was choked with bacteria and heavy metals as it flowed through the Twin Cities on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Like other rivers around the country, it has come back to life.

But a more complicated set of pollutants has emerged, harder to deal with than a pipe spewing toxins directly into the water.    

Many rivers are loaded with nutrients and pesticides from farm fields and homes.  Medicines and household products — what scientists call "chemicals of emerging concern" — are changing some fish in subtle ways that could endanger their survival.  And invasive species are turning ecosystems upside down.

Lakes — Minnesota's well-loved claim to fame — have suffered from failing septic systems and overbuilt shorelines.   

Use of drinking water
Minnesota's use of drinking water has been rising with its population.
Courtesy Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework

Forty percent of the state's waters that have been tested don't meet state and national standards. The biggest threats? Nitrates, mercury and chemicals of emerging concern, the report says.

The Minnesota Department of Health says its 2010 tests of 961 community drinking water supply systems found 15 systems with detectable levels of coliform bacteria, one system that exceeded current federal standards for pesticides and industrial contaminants, three systems that exceeded the standard for nitrate, 15 systems that exceeded the standard for arsenic, and nine systems that exceeded the standard for radium 226 and 228.  

Concerned about this state of affairs, the Legislature two years ago directed the University of Minnesota to outline what needs to be done to move the state toward sustainable use of water — that is, use that doesn't harm ecosystems, degrade water quality, or compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. What resulted was a call to re-examine state laws, to educate residents, to consider water issues in connection with land use and energy issues, to deal with water infrastructure needs, the price of water and more. 

Swackhamer, co-director of the university's Water Resources Center, presented the report, called "Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework" in the early days of the last legislative session.  

Impairments chart
Minnesota waters can be declared "impaired" in a variety of ways.
Courtesy Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework

Swackhamer presented it at hearings, but it seemed to sink fast in a session preoccupied with budget fights and hot-button issues.  No legislation to put any of its recommendations into effect was introduced.

But Swackhamer says the framework will eventually be very helpful.

"Of course I would have loved if the first bill out of the House and Senate was to adopt the framework as is and move forward.  But I also appreciate there are a lot of other things going on, and this is a long-term plan.  But I'm very pleased that six months after we provided it to the Legislature, there is still an awful lot of discussion and interest in it."

The state's Clean Water Council is using the framework to guide how it determines the use of sales tax proceeds from the state's Legacy Amendment should be used.

The author of the legislation that commissioned the report, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, says it lacks some of the detail she was hoping for.

Minnesota's impaired waters
Forty percent of Minnesota waters that have been tested has been declared impaired by one measure or another.
Courtesy Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework

"We need to figure out what it is we can do, what are best practices that actually work on the ground," Wagenius said. She pointed to recent studies showing that after years of trying to reduce agricultural pollutants in the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, for example, those waters have improved little if at all. But she notes that state agencies will be where much of the action is, and if they find them useful, they may put specific legislation forward. 

So far, some of those agencies do indeed provide a more upbeat view of the report's value.  Dave Leuthe, a regional manager at the Department of Natural Resources, said the framework promotes an idea state agencies have started embracing in the last few years — working together, across traditional boundaries in both scientific discipline and government.  

"It pulls together what we need to do to manage things sustainably, and crosses all agencies governments, and says if we're going to do this we have to do it together," Leuthe said. He said he's been meeting with people from other agencies almost as often as with his own DNR colleagues lately.

But the framework won't cause all differences to melt away.  

One of its key recommendations is for a revolutionary approach to agricultural pollution.  It says all the farmers in a given watershed should work together to figure out the best way to bring the water leaving their fields up to standards.    

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-St. James, is active in water issues and largely approves of the framework, echoing Wagenius and saying that it's really aimed at helping state agencies and groups involved in water issues. But he's also a farmer and he says existing voluntary programs work just fine.  

"We are regulated," he said. "It's not that we're not regulated, but to put in more specific regulations would be a very difficult and challenging process, and expensive."

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