What progress has Minnesota made on the road to clean water?

Docks extend into White Bear Lake, where water levels have steadily decreased over the last decade, in White Bear Lake, Minn. September, 2011. Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Minnesota passed the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy amendment in 2008, which helps fund art programs and projects to protect the state’s environment and waters through an increased sales tax. From July 2009 through June 2034, the fund will invest about $90 million each year to protect drinking water sources and restore Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. The state government’s Clean Water Roadmap shows that this investment is largely going toward preventing further degradation, but it doesn’t seem there has been much progress in improving water quality, or making the state’s waters more fishable, swimmable, or drinkable.

Jeffrey Peterson is the director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. He writes to MPR:

In 2008, Minnesota voters made history by committing to the largest state investment of its kind to improve water quality. We are now more than five years into this 25-year commitment and it’s a reasonable time to ask about progress.

The available data, as it turns out, are mixed and difficult to summarize. Among the water quality measures that have been tracked consistently, many show long-term improvements. However, water quality is not getting better everywhere in the state, and the fluctuations in any given place make it hard to see whether the recent taxpayer investments had an impact. Moreover, data from newly monitored watersheds will continue to come online until we reach full monitoring in 2017. Some of the new data inevitably are from places with lower water quality than state averages, at least periodically dragging down the apparent progress statewide. Much of the taxpayer investment has been spent on cost-sharing for individual practices with landowners. Those practices often take time to implement, and even when they are working the water quality improvements are not fully felt in the near term.

By the nature of the problem, we must chart a course with less than full knowledge of where we are or where we have been. But there are many reasons to optimistic about our direction. Watershed plans are being created at local scales throughout the state, and valuable lessons can be learned from known success stories where impairments have been removed. New innovations continue to be developed, including new crops that provide economic opportunities for landowners while also improving water quality. Depending on implementation, the new law on vegetative buffers should have an impact in future years. Finally, due to investments in better monitoring, we will have an improved sense of our status and information to adjust course in the future.

If one wants to compare water quality to other great challenges, the fight against cancer is probably a better example than traveling to the moon or vaccinating against polio. We’re unlikely to see a singular breakthrough that dawns a new age when we can declare the water quality problem solved. We’re more likely to see many incremental steps, not all successful, with results discernable over a long sweep of time. Minnesota has the assets to address this problem, but success will require our sustained effort and attention.

Patrick Flowers and Gene Merriam, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Clean Water Council write:

The Clean Water Council recognizes that although some progress is being made with Clean Water Fund dollars, the substantial effort needed to fully protect our drinking water and protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater far outweighs the approximately $110 million per year available until 2034. Fundamentally we all need to change our behaviors and what we do on the landscape in order to achieve clean, sustainable water in Minnesota. As an example, the Clean Water Council in 2014 recommended that the State require maintained vegetative buffers along public waters and ditches to protect water quality. Early in 2015, the Governor proposed buffer legislation that was enacted into law. This law requires shoreline buffers and water quality practices that will better protect state water resources.

The Clean Water Council FY16-17 Clean Water Fund Recommendations Report provides a summary of progress to date for programs that have received Clean Water Fund dollars in Appendix A. More information about programs and projects funded by the Clean Water Fund can be found on the Minnesota’s Legacy website.

Today’s Question: What progress has Minnesota made on the road to clean water?

  • Yanotha Twangai

    The folks quoted in the introduction answered the question fairly well. What more is there to say?