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To thrive despite climate change, build a water-smart Minnesota

It will cost four times as much to restore landscapes once they’re lost than to preserve them. That’s why we need to act immediately to protect the Mississippi’s headwaters, which are still 60% forested.

Forest bathing
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
With mega-wildfires afflicting the West Coast, a record number of tropical storms and hurricanes pointed at the Southwest and the Gulf of Mexico every year, and a pandemic putting the entire globe at risk, there is no shortage of issues to tackle in today’s world. But when it comes to water, we Minnesotans have an important role to play – and it can’t wait until the pandemic subsides.

Here in Minnesota, we often count ourselves lucky to live in what could be one of the most climate-resilient places in the United States because of our abundant freshwater resources. With our 10,000 lakes, we have the water many regions lack. And our tie to the Mississippi is crucial. More than 2.5 million people and countless businesses rely on the Mississippi River, which gets its start in Minnesota, for their water needs.

Everything hinges on water

For us, everything hinges on water. Minnesota in its current form can’t exist without a healthy Mississippi. Our lakes and rivers are vital to our communities, supporting not only communities outstate, but also the large companies in and around the Twin Cities. The river is a source of economic prosperity that needs to be protected now.

At Ecolab, we manage more than a trillion gallons of water annually for our customers worldwide. Here’s what we know: It’s hard to produce a steady supply of goods and services or grow crops efficiently when you’re besieged by droughts, floods, freak weather and pollution. Healthy watersheds provide a natural buffer that helps ensure stability in a climate-challenged world.

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That’s especially true in Minnesota. Where do we start? Protecting our land.

More and more, businesses are learning that natural landscapes are a source of resilience. When present, forests and wetlands are a natural sponge and filter. The rich soils and roots soak up excess water, keeping it from running off into lakes and waterways with the sediments and chemicals it can carry. This recharges our groundwater and supplies our lakes and streams. But now we’re facing the challenge of diminishing forest and wetlands.

Protect the Mississippi headwaters

This must be reversed. Without our natural water storage and filtration, climate-induced excessive rainfalls lead to more flooding and pollution. It will cost four times as much to restore landscapes once they’re lost than to preserve them. That’s why we need to act immediately to protect the Mississippi’s headwaters, which are still 60% forested.

Emilio Tenuta
Emilio Tenuta
Last year, Ecolab partnered with McKinsey and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on a study that found protecting critical lands in the Mississippi headwaters would yield $500 million in benefits. These include avoided water treatment costs and flood damage, retained property value, tourism and jobs, along with carbon mitigation and public health gains. If we delay too long and the job becomes restoration instead of preservation, the cost could be as high as $8 billion.

The good news is that the work has already started. TNC scientists have identified 200,000 of the 13-million-acre Mississippi headwaters watershed as most critical to securing healthy lakes, streams, and drinking water. Protecting and restoring those areas will take a decade and TNC’s Our Water Campaign, has been raising funds to jumpstart this work.

We can’t do it alone though, and it can’t be put on hold until the pandemic is over. Business, government and civil society must come together in the best Minnesota tradition.

Businesses should reduce their water footprint and eliminate pollution to alleviate pressure on lakes and rivers. By investing in the protection and restoration of wetlands, they can offset their water usage. They can fund groups like TNC and tell elected officials that natural landscapes are a tangible business enabler for the state.

Government can take the lead in priority setting

Government can take the lead in setting clear priorities. It’s no secret that America’s water infrastructure is old and literally leaky. We need to invest in upgrades that also promote the reuse of water and installation of “purple pipe” systems that allows us to recirculate non-potable water that’s good enough for industrial uses. Water infrastructure should be a key part of any pandemic recovery plans or stimulus. At the same time, tax and other incentives can be given to companies that make water-smart investments.

With their wealth of scientific expertise and awareness-raising chops, civil society groups can help ensure high-quality work and socially equitable outcomes. Individuals can do their part by learning, donating, volunteering and demanding that business leaders elected officials do the right thing.

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If we get this right, we will not only build the foundations for a climate resilient region, but we’ll also lay the ground work that will enable us to continue to be a next exporter of water and strengthen our economy through the goods, food and services we produce.

Making this effort is in keeping with who we are as a state that has a history of coming together to do the right thing and – perhaps most of all – has always had a love affair with its pristine and abundant water.

Emilio Tenuta is vice president and chief sustainability officer at Ecolab in St. Paul.

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