ECM Editorial: Change critical in maintaining safe, ample water supply here

Over the past six months, ECM’s Editorial Board has outlined a number of challenges facing Minnesotans when it comes to water quality and quantity. If one thing was made clear, it is that change is critical for us to maintain a safe, and ample, water supply.

In a seemingly water-rich state, it can be hard to recognize the severity of the problem. Drought-stricken regions in the southern and western United States are getting a preview of what many Americans could experience if efforts to manage water are not stepped up.

Forty out of 50 state water managers, including Minnesota, expect at least some kind of regional water shortage in their state in the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This agency, which is an independent, non-partisan office that investigates how the federal government spends its money, reports that over the past 10 years there are growing concerns about the impacts of climate change and severe weather events (including droughts and floods) on water resources.

Los Angeles has just logged its driest five years on record, receiving half the rainfall of the average five-year amount. Californians are responding. According to the State Water Resources Control Board, there was a 28 percent drop in residential water use in May, compared with the same month in 2013. To many in Minnesota, conservation seems like a nice idea, but not a critical one.

The majority of Minnesota’s drinking water supply comes from groundwater, as compared to the surface water that is predominantly used by the rest of the country. But increasing reliance on unseen aquifers that are pumped faster than they can naturally recharge will eventually lead to a water shortage, according to experts.

Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, water expert and University of Minnesota professor emeritus, predicts that without changes in source, five generations from now Minnesotans may not have enough water. Using surface water will be more expensive, Swackhamer said, but a necessary alternative.

Local governments need to plan for costlier infrastructure in the future. In its most recent report, the Freshwater Society recommends local governments charge users for the true cost of water distribution.

As populations expand and resources run dry in the U.S., water’s value as a commodity will continue to grow.

Waukesha, Wisconsin, is the first city outside of the Great Lakes watershed allowed to tap the lakes for drinking water. Under the Great Lakes Compact, a 2008 law, water has not been allowed to be exported outside the Great Lakes basin, with two exceptions, for cities that straddle the watershed or cities located in counties that straddle the line where water on one side flows into the Great Lakes

But a unanimous vote of the governors representing the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin approved the precedent-setting exception for the Milwaukee suburb. Waukesha plans to spend $207 million to pipe 8.2 million gallons of water each day from the lake, and discharge an equal amount of wastewater after purifying it at its treatment plant.

What will happen if more communities request the same type of diversion? Will we start to see water in cross country, and continental pipelines, flowing to the highest bidder?

Even if we have enough water it won’t be safe enough to sustain us unless more protective measures are taken.

In the land of 10,000 lakes, 40 percent of our lakes and streams are polluted. This includes six counties in the southwest corner of Minnesota where no lakes are considered swimmable or fishable.

Although some farmers are excellent stewards of the environment, agriculture still puts the greatest pressure on our water, which suffers from nitrogen and phosphorus overloading. Commercial manufacturing, highly fertilized lawns and urban runoff also contribute to the problem.

Land use changes are essential to protect Minnesota’s water. Preservation and proper management of natural cover along lakeshores can protect water quality by buffering nutrient-overloaded runoff.

In February, Gov. Mark Dayton hosted a water quality summit, bringing together water quality experts, farmers, legislators, regulators, the business community, Minnesota residents, local leaders and others. Dayton has made water quality a top priority in his final term in office.

At the summit, Dayton urged all Minnesotans to share in the responsibility. “What we really need is to establish an ethic of clean water practices,” he said.

He proposed legislation to require a buffer strip between ag production and Minnesota’s lakes and streams, and a modified version passed with input from agricultural interests. But more needs to be done, and all of us, not just farmers, need to do our part.

And while Flint, Michigan, has been center-stage when it comes to lead contamination, Minnesotans should also be on alert.

While dust and dirt from contaminated soils and flakes and chips from lead-based pipes remain the main source of lead exposure for Minnesota children, lead in drinking water can be a problem for families who live in older homes where lead pipes still deliver drinking water.

Lead exposure in children has been shown to severely affect development with mental and physical delays. But in many parts of the Twin Cities, lead pipes still transport water to homes and schools, most often in older and predominantly poorer neighborhoods.

While the Minnesota Department of Health reports the state has had few issues with lead contamination, a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics raises doubt. A Quest Diagnostics study that spanned six years, evaluating 3.8 million children in 50 states found elevated levels of lead in about 3 percent of the children tested. But in Minnesota, Qwest reports 10.3 percent of the children tested had levels of lead contamination higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter. The health department challenges that the data of this study was skewed by testing a small sample of Minnesota children (2,400) who were already suspected of having high blood levels. The state’s own data shows that of the 402,000 Minnesota children tested during that period, 1.2 percent showed elevated lead levels, according to a Washington Post report.

MDH’s Lead and Healthy Homes Program performs outreach and education for health care providers and the public. Among their educational points is the “Let it run … and get the lead out!” campaign that encourages users to let the water run if pipes have been sitting idle to flush out the contaminant. This is a good short-term solution, but for the sake of children, replacement of lead pipes must be a priority.

We can all be stewards of Minnesota’s water. It doesn’t have to get to the crisis level that water-deprived states already face.

Maybe a rain garden is a good fit for your property. Or you could fix that leaky faucet or toilet that contributes to the 10,000 gallons a year many U.S. households waste as a result of plumbing problems. By properly disposing of your pharmaceuticals you can keep them from contaminating our water.

You can vote for legislators who push policymaking that will protect Minnesota’s clean water. You can support local government in making much-needed infrastructure improvements for water distribution and treatment.

While water conservation and protection may be expensive, ignoring them is also a costly proposition with a price tag we can’t begin to predict.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board


Reactions to this editorial — and to any ECM Editorial Board commentary – are always welcome. Send to: [email protected].