Report: Minn. could better care for its water resourcesby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new report released today faults Minnesota for not taking very good care of its rivers and lakes.
Minnesotans drink from them, swim and fish in them - and use them to produce energy and to water lawns. But the report from the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota concludes the people in the state should show more than love for water. It concludes that Minnesotans should to invest in efforts to ensure clean water and a healthy ecosystem.
The "Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework," prepared at the direction of the Legislature, recommends some far-reaching changes in how the state manages its waters.
More than 200 scientists and other experts worked on the report, which reviews existing data, policies, and goals. It sought to determine how the state can use water without damaging the ecosystem or impairing the ability of future generations to use it.
Although the state is known for its abundance of water, there's a lot Minnesotans don't know about the state's water - such as how much of it there is. Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the Water Resources Center, said that's like managing a bank account without some basic information.
"We know how much we're using, i.e. how much we're spending. We don't know how much we're depositing -- not good," Swackhamer said. "We don't know how much is present in our bank account -- not good. Two of the three things you need to know to run your finances well, we don't know."
A big challenge for Minnesota is how do deal with pollution that doesn't come from factories or wastewater treatment plants, which are regulated by the state. For example, it's difficult to limit runoff from streets or farm fields.
Swackhamer said Minnesota is a leader in designing methods that help cities and farmers reduce the pollutants they send into waterways.
"However, the implementation of such best management practices in Minnesota is voluntary," she said. "Unless more progress is made Minnesota will still have impaired waters in 25 years at the rate at which this is occurring.
Agriculture is one of the largest sources of pollution going into Minnesota's waters. But in the state's current approach to water clean-up, farmers are not required to limit runoff.
The report concludes that it's time to leave voluntary measures behind. It suggests that farmers in a given watershed could form a co-op that would be charged with the job of figuring out how to meet pollution reduction goals.
"They get to decide how to do it, but they need to meet it," Swackhamer said.
That would be a big change for farmers. How they will react to this idea remains to be seen, said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition, a group that educates farmers on pollution prevention.
"I think that whatever program is developed to help farmers, whether it's continuation of the current voluntary approach or whatever direction we take, certainly farmers need to be involved in the development of that program," Formo said.
The report also proposes imposing fees to help ensure rivers and lakes are protected. Minnesota could incorporate such fees into the price residents pay for their water supplies.
Swackhamer said during the environmental review process officials should consider how new projects -- from new mines or ethanol plants to new subdivisions -- affect water.
"Right now it's kind of one-sided. We don't really quantify or account for the benefits we get from a healthy ecosystem, or to put it in a different way, what it costs to have lost some of the benefits from a healthy ecosystem," she said. "So we're recommending that the costs of those are included in environmental review."
The costs of the many recommendations in the report are at the top of Craig Johnson's mind. Johnson, a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities, said the report doesn't include a price tag.
"We had theoretically the best and brightest engineering and science minds in the state developing a plan for how we should have sustainable water, and there's no discussion in it of how you pay for it," Johnson said. "And I'm sorry but if you can't pay for it, it's not a plan for sustainable water."
But according to Swackhamer, funding for a lot of these changes could come from the more than $80 million a year allocated to water in the state's Clean Water, Land and the Legacy Amendment approved by voters a couple of years ago.
The report goes to the legislature early next year; in the meantime, the public can comment on the draft of the plan, on the web page of the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center.