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Deborah Swackhamer on the use and misuse of water in Minnesota

As Swackhamer reminds us, water issues are systems issues, and she’s not just talking about the water cycle of precipitation, evaporation and transpiration. Here is the full video of her Feb. 22 presentation.

Earth Journal columnist Ron Meador speaking with Dr. Deborah Swackhamer during the event's question-and-answer session.
MinnPost photo by Andrew Wallmeyer

As I said in last Wednesday’s Earth Journal column, it is hard to do justice in the usual journalistic ways to a presentation by water expert and University of Minnesota emeritus professor Deborah Swackhamer, which we’re presenting today in full via video.

And that was certainly so for her talk last Monday for a group of MinnPost readers and supporters who gathered at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis to hear her presentation, “Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?”

In Wednesday’s column I focused on some of the high points in her analysis of the fix we’re in with problems of both water quality and water quantity – with emphasis on the latter because while Minnesotans are quite familiar with agricultural pollution and algal blooms, many are still surprised to hear that overuse of groundwater is causing wells to run dry in parts of the state.

That disparity was certainly reflected in the dozens of great questions the audience sent to the stage for Swackhamer to answer after her presentation, and so was an awareness of water challenges nationally – in Flint, Michigan, for example – and globally.

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For today’s piece, I wanted to focus on her analysis of how successfully the state is – or isn’t – planning for water management challenges of the future and pursuing those plans. The answers to that are very important, but also very complex and intricately interconnected.

As Swackhamer consistently reminds us, water issues are systems issues, and she’s not just talking about the water cycle of precipitation, evaporation and transpiration. There are enormous economic factors driving the ways we use and misuse water, as well as social and cultural dimensions that defy simple solutions.

In general, Swackhamer gives the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton high marks for taking water issues seriously and looking ahead to a future in which the outlook turns grim. She’s less sanguine about actual progress toward implementing agreed-upon goals.

Summarizing her material fairly and clearly is such a challenge that on Wednesday I opted simply to quote her at great length. Today I’m not even going to try that.

Instead, I suggest you set aside a little time in a comfortable spot to watch and listen for yourself. Her talk runs for about a half-hour and the Q&A period goes for another 45 minutes or so. So call it a double feature.

“Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?” full presentation

In addition, Swackhamer has generously agreed to let MinnPost publish the slides from her presentation as a PDF, which you can find here.

As for the question in the title of her talk, Swackhamer believes the answer is yes: We can achieve water sustainability in this state.

We can get nitrates and other dangerous chemicals out of drinking water. We can change agricultural practices to slow the rate at which polluting sediments and nutrients run off the land. We can rebuild our aging infrastructure and avert the creation of disasters like the one being experienced by Flint. We can meet future needs without pumping all the aquifers dry.

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But it will take  an awful  lot of work, which we’ve barely begun.