3M Co., Pentair, Ecolab and other Minnesota businesses see great potential in the growing worries over the supply and demand for water, as MPR News reporter Martin Moylan pointed out earlier this week.

But there’s a flip side to the money-water question.

The Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water District is one of many rural water districts and small-town water systems in the increasingly expensive hunt for more water. Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Water issues threaten to throttle economic development in places — mainly rural — where the costs of delivering good water and carrying away sewage are set to overwhelm taxpayers,  the Mankato, Minn.-based Center for Rural Policy and Development warns in its newest report, “The State of Water.”

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

The center is a non-partisan, non-profit research organization that has generated a variety of research in the state, looking at issues from a rural perspective.

For many reasons — water scarcity, increased demand, contamination, old and leaky pipes — a lot of Minnesota communities from Worthington to Two Harbors need water infrastructure help, the center says. Without it, the chance for economic growth is dim.

The irony, though, is that to make those infrastructure improvements, cities need a tax base from which they can raise funds to pay off infrastructure loans. And to get that tax base, they need economic development. The smaller the city, the smaller the tax base, and therefore, a decreased ability to pay for the necessary improvements.

Upgrading facilities raises water and sewer rates, which makes it harder for a community to compete with neighbors, the report argued.

The report took note of MPR News reporter Mark Steil’s coverage last week on the hundreds of irrigation wells that lack permits, making it harder to figure out the status of Minnesota’s groundwater.

Likewise, it notes that many small cities similarly have something out of whack. Of the 264 small towns with state permits to pump water for their residents, more than two-thirds failed to report to the state either how much water they pumped or how much end users used or they reported delivering more water than they actually pumped.

It’s hard to get a handle on things if that’s the case.

Is it time, the report asked, “to invest again in an overhaul of the way we handle water and wastewater infrastructure in Greater Minnesota—particularly in how it’s funded? If so, who has the will to lead the way?”

The center makes several recommendations:

  • Establish a Legislative Water Commission that would try to coordinate information about water, particularly if it has rural representation. Such a plan has been proposed in the Legislature.
  • Recognize that as water contamination requirements get tighter, they place disproportionate burdens on small communities. And be aware of the long-term decline in federal funding for infrastructure.
  • Start planning long-term for re-working small-city infrastructure.
  • Support state agencies’ efforts to get more information about the state’s water.
  • Think differently about some of the smallest communities with troubled water infrastructure

“It is hard to admit, but there are some towns that do not have a realistic chance of growing,” the report says, but adds:

However, it does not have to be an all-or-nothing future for them. There are alternatives to a traditional full-scale wastewater treatment facility. Encourage state agencies like the Pollution Control Agency and the Public Facilities Authority to continue working with the smallest communities and their engineers to explore these alternatives first.

Kraemer Mining and Materials limestone quarry in Burnsville. The cities of Burnsville and Savage use water treated after it is drawn from the pond at bottom.

Ten years ago, Kraemer Mining and Materials could see complications coming at its limestone quarry in Burnsville.

Groundwater seeping into the quarry had to be pumped into the nearby Minnesota River — more than 3 billion gallons a year. The pumping cost money, but more significant was that the company was bumping up against limits set by the Department of Natural Resources for how much it could pump. That put constraints on expansion.

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

In the meantime, the people supplying drinking water to residents and businesses in the growing cities of Burnsville and Savage also had a problem. They, too, were being constrained by the state in their desire to tap groundwater.

They could see water levels dropping in the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, and they knew they couldn’t stay on the same path for another 10 or 20 years and continue to plan for growth. What’s more, groundwater pumping was threatening an unusual kind of wetland in the area. Known as a calcareous fen, it and others like it are protected under state law, much like trout streams are.

The result? People in Burnsville and Savage have been drinking quarry water for the past five years. The cities updated the Metropolitan Council on the project last month and expect to renew their partnership soon for another five years.

It’s an example of thinking differently about water and coming up with a solution that both helps preserve a sensitive environmental area and gives some assurance for a long-time supply of drinking water. Read more

One question, three answers. Or maybe it was one answer.

About 200 150 people got together Friday afternoon and evening for a symposium at Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis to encourage Minnesotans to think differently about water.

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

It was put on by Students for Design Activism at the University of Minnesota, and attendees included landscape architects, public works people, state agency employees, academics, students and just plain folks. I moderated a panel whose topics ran from slowing down and using water in the Los Angeles River without flooding the city to some innovative (and oddly related) efforts to slow down cornfield drainage and reuse water to ease irrigation demands.

But what might stick with me longest came at the very end, around 9:30, after the food and drinks and a movie about the Colorado River narrated by Robert Redford called “Watershed.”

After hours of thinking  and talking about how Minnesotans don’t really value water enough, Matt Kucharski, executive vice president at PadillaCRT, posed this question: What would you do with a million dollars to get that to change? Three panelists took a shot at it.

Matthew Tucker, University of Minnesota professor of landscape architecture, thought a while and concluded he would use the money to launch a campaign that urged people to “begin to tell more water stories,” to think about the personal relationships they have with specific places, specific connections to water.

Deborah Swackhamer, professor and co-director of the Water Resources Center at the university, first pointed out that Minnesota actually has a lot more money than that to spend on cleaning and sustaining water via the Legacy Amendment. But pressed for a priority, she singled out the relationship between farming and water.

“If I had another million dollars, I would try to find a creative way to think about growing food and having water,” she said, to somehow de-fuse the antagonism and finger-pointing that seems quick to erupt when agriculture’s use of water comes up. Earlier she had said, “I don’t blame the farmers as much as our institutions. We force them to do bad things.”

The last word went to Dorene Day, an Ojibwe-Anishinabe woman from the Bois Forte Reservation in northern Minnesota who, as part of the Indigenous Peoples’ Task Force, has worked to increase awareness of freshwater issues throughout the nation. She would, she said, campaign for people to recite a water prayer, which she then did in Ojibwe. She translated it to say simply, “We love you, water.”

Three different answers, none of which involved pumping or cleaning or saving or conserving. Instead, they all in some way suggested starting with conversation.

What would you do with a million dollars to spend on water in Minnesota?