HomeDiscoveryGlobal Water Initiative8 things we learned about a clean water future

8 things we learned about a clean water future

This article was originally published by Anya Moucha and is republished with permission.

What would a clean water future look like for Minnesota? Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota; Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stein; and Deborah Swackhamer, a professor in the Humphrey School and School of Public Health, explored answers to that Big Question at last week’s Frontiers in the Environment event. Here are eight things we learned:

Minnesota is the most water-rich state in the U.S. Despite this, we still have to careful about our water future. We are currently dealing with high levels of unclean water, a problem that may only be exacerbated by increasing stresses such as population growth. We need to think not just about having enough water for everyone, but also about making sure our water is clean and safe.

“Clean” is relative. The value we place on our water and terms such as “better” and “cleaner” are relative. How do we know what is “clean enough” and when we’ve achieved our clean water goals? While “fishable and swimmable” may be the ultimate target, these two terms can mean different things to different people and may depend on the baseline of the problem.

Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap offers a promising path to the future. Thanks to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota has roughly $2.5 billion to spend on water over the next 20 years. This means Minnesota will invest about $90 million each year on clean water initiatives. Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap lays out goals for our state’s water resources in the areas of lake water quality, river and stream quality, groundwater quality, and groundwater quantity.

Economics play a huge role in water quality concerns. Even small steps are expensive, and funding is limited compared to the size of the problem. Over the next 20 years, it will cost $11 billion to $15 billion just to keep up with drinking and water infrastructure. This amount does not even take into account the potential costs from increasing stormwater and unknown costs. Water use fees are insufficient to cover these costs, suggesting that current water pricing doesn’t adequately reflect true costs.

Progress takes time. Minnesota’s goals for 2034 include increasing the percentage of lakes with clean water from 62  to 70, increasing the percentage of streams and rivers in Minnesota with healthy fish communities from 60 to 67, reducing nitrate levels in groundwater by 20 percent, and reducing the percentage of new wells exceeding the arsenic standard by 50 percent. These may seem slow, but they are necessary to achieving a clean water future.

Water resources face present and future pressures. Right now, one of the most pressing problems for Minnesota water quality is nitrate, an expensive public health problem. In the future, demographic changes, land use changes, and climate change will all need to be considered when talking about water quality. Growing populations mean more water use. Climate change raises uncertainty about shifting climates with more extreme weather events and shifting seasons, leading to questions about runoff, floods, and droughts.

The biggest use of water in Minnesota is to cool power plants that make electricity. This disproportional use helps to show how the various policy sectors in Minnesota are not aligned. If we truly want to achieve sustainable water use, policies need to work across sectors and not as separate entities. This means aligning the policies such as water, land, transport and energy.

We need to step up our game. So far, Minnesota is not doing as well as we need to. Despite having a framework to lead clean water efforts, we are not achieving our goals. The longer we wait, the worse problems may get. For example, we’ve put increasing stress on groundwater resources, and to solve this, we need to explore more surface water options

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