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It’s time to take a huge step forward on water quality in Minnesota

Will this be the year Minnesota takes a huge step forward on water quality issues, or will it be a missed opportunity? 

Gov. Mark Dayton announced recently that he plans to call a water quality summit in late February to address the myriad issues facing the state’s water supply. With this announcement, Minnesotans have been given a tremendous opportunity.

The summit is a chance for the people of Minnesota to have their voices heard, and for state leaders come together behind the information gathered as a part of the summit to put Minnesota on a clear path to clean water. 

There is no doubt that clean water is important to all Minnesotans. In the Land of 11,842 Lakes, water isn’t just a natural resource. It is a part of who we are. When it comes to supporting the health of lakes, rivers and drinking water we pride ourselves on our conservational ways. 

Example: the Legacy Amendment

One need only look at the Legacy Amendment that passed in 2008 to see an example of the level of support Minnesotans have for clean water. We voted to increase our own taxes to make sure that our strong heritage of clean land and waters remained protected. 

Water quality issues are complex, and that complexity can sometimes be a barrier to success. One thing that helped last year’s Buffer Bill ultimately pass was that the goal was clear and understandable. Regrettably, that level of clarity has been a missing component in much of our state’s water quality planning. Over the years we have seen many different plans and goals come and go. With such a lack of clarity and consistency, there has been no way for the average Minnesotan to track where we are, let alone where we are headed.

And when the state has set clear goals, they have not been inspiring. The state’s 2014 Clean Water Roadmap aspired to increase the percentage of Minnesota lakes with “good” water quality by 8 percent over 20 years, leaving 30 percent of our lakes polluted. This is clearly not enough. Nor is it enough to aim for only a 50 percent reduction in the number of drinking water wells contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic and nitrates. Rather than speak in increments, it is time we start talking about a broader vision with concrete deadlines for reaching meaningful targets. 

The real question: What will it take?

The participants in this summit will be grappling with our state’s most important natural resource questions. Instead of asking what can we get done with the funding, policies, strategies and partners we have today, they should be asking what it would take to most effectively clean up our state’s waters once and for all.

We encourage the summit participants to identify the steps we must take to sustainably manage the quantity of both surface and ground water, to eliminate mercury and plastic pollution, to successfully stop the spread of invasive species, to make sure every Minnesotan has safe drinking water, and to clean up every last polluted lake, river and stream for the enjoyment of future generations.

We challenge Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to take what is learned at the summit and find a way to use it to unleash the potential of our communities, businesses and every day average Minnesotans to play a role in cleaning up our waters. 

Set a bold state goal

How about making a Clean Water Promise for Minnesota by setting a state goal to solve all of these water problems by the year 2050?

To some, 2050 may sound far away for such an important goal. To others, reaching a goal of this scope might sound impossible. The fact is that reclaiming our waters by 2050 would be a tremendous feat. It also true that for Minnesotans there are few things in which we take more pride than our waters. As safe, clean water becomes an increasingly rare commodity around the globe, we have the opportunity to shore up our abundant supply and create a legacy that our generation can proudly hand off to the next.

Will this be the year Minnesota takes a huge step forward on water quality issues, or will it be a missed opportunity?

Paul Austin is the executive director of Conservation Minnesota. Gene Merriam is a former senator and DNR commissioner. Darby Nelson is a biologist and the author of “For Love of Lakes.” Dave Legvold is a Rice County farmer and environmental educator. 


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 10:45 am.

    What is considered “good” water quality and who defines that? When you say that “30% of our lakes will be polluted” after current regulations what does that mean? Are we talking parts per million? Who enforces these standards? The biggest question of all is, what means are in place to take a body of water deemed “polluted” and change it?

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/02/2016 - 11:57 am.


    I grew up in Mankato near the Blue Earth and Minnesota Rivers, spending many days fishing, canoeing, and hiking these and other Minnesota waterways. And I’ve been following the water quality issue for many decades, first in the Star Tribune and now online.

    It seems every few years there’s a new study, a new task force, or a new initiative to clean up our waterways and make them into something other than an open sewer. And each time these issues are brought up people scream loudly about how much they’ll cost, it’s not me polluting but those other guys, and who’s going to pay me to not pollute.

    And then…the whole thing gets dropped until a new super-duper plan pops up ten years later. Nothing gets resolved, nothing gets improved, and the water simply gets worse. For once can we get a real plan and some real political will to get it executed? I hope no one minds if I don’t hold my breath waiting for action.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 02/02/2016 - 01:35 pm.


    What plan? Who administers the plan and under what authority? Who decides what constitutes clean water vs water considered polluted? Who pays for the plan? How far are those in control allowed to go, no fertilizing crops, no mining, no ATV’s on Federal/State land, no boats on public water ways?

    All sounds good but no information at all about implementing a plan in this article.

  4. Submitted by Kathleen Doran-Norton on 02/02/2016 - 04:51 pm.

    Thanks! Yes, it’s about time.

    Well put my friends. And besides the reasonable goal that our waters are clean and support drinking and fishing and recreation, somehow we need a statewide ‘good neighbor’ law when it comes to water.

    If I were a farmer, I think I shouldn’t harm my neighbor’s baby or elderly grandmother with high levels of nitrates from my farm (Federal Department of Health guidelines say 10mg per liter could do that).

    The soil sheeting off my land in a rain may improve my neighbor’s topsoil, but it probably means future farmers will be less likely to farm. Maybe it’s time to stop treating soil like dirt and creeks like sewers.

    And when I submit a tiling plan, the local SWCD should tell me if the change in hydrology is going to create soil erosion on my neighbor’s farm – and then I should have to do something about it rather than causing my neighbor grief. My neighbor shouldn’t have to resort to sueing me over the problems I’ve caused him. And it should probably include a “100 year” rain event scenario, since they seem to happen every couple years.

    And maybe I should be able to do anything with my private ditch – but if that causes a problem when “my” ditch water becomes “everybody’s” water, then maybe I ought to figure out a way to fix it rather than dumping my “trash” into the neigborhood.

    Maybe Minnesota scientists could provide terrain analysis, so I know I’m making the best use of land – that a farmable terrace would be better in some area rather than a buffer – or that a saturated buffer would work better in a particular place?

    And how about creating a market for deep-rooted perennial wheat or other deep-rooted plants that hold and maybe even denitrify the soil? Or carbon credits for cover crops that hold carbon in the soil? We created a new market for corn with ethanol, and biofuel for soybeans. Why not a market for plants that benefit us all?

    And make use of the great Legacy amendment! For those places that are particularly sensitive, the people of Minnesota who are not farmers ought to buy and protect those lands and waters that should be our state’s great legacy to our children.

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