What is the future of clean water in Minnesota?
Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce and valuable resource in the state. Does that matter? It does if we want to have enough water to support growing towns and cities, healthy ecosystems, and thriving industry and tourism sectors. An ambitious project underway at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment will assess the state of Minnesota’s water resources and provide cutting edge research and models to support more informed management of the state’s most valuable natural resource.
Minnesotans use water for drinking, farming, producing energy, recreating and a host of industrial endeavors. Securing long-term sustainability for Minnesota’s water resources will require the most up-to-date information about how water is used, plus forecasts of how future climate, development, and use scenarios might affect availability and quality of our water.
The project is the first to integrate a water balance (water inputs and outputs) model with social and economic data on how different groups use water and are likely to be affected by changes in water quality and quantity. This information on the value of water can then be used in cost-benefit studies, risk analyses and return-on-investment calculations, according to the project team.
Heading up the project are Bonnie Keeler, lead scientist of IonE’s Natural Capital Project; Kate Brauman, lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Initiative; and Tracy Twine, assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The team received a $240,000 grant in July from the state of Minnesota’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund to implement the project. The trust fund was established by the state “for the public purpose of protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources,” according to the ENRTF website.
The project, called “Informed water management: Mapping scarcity, threats and values,” aims to answer three main questions: How much water does the state have available and what is it being used for? What is the state’s water risk — how will changes in water quality and quantity affect the availability of clean water? What is the value of clean water to Minnesota?
To answer the first question, Brauman will first determine Minnesota’s water balance by studying the state’s Department of Natural Resources water permits, used to regulate water use by municipalities, farms and businesses, including large-scale endeavors such as mining and power generation.
The second question will be approached by mapping and modeling the state’s water risk using a state-of-the-art model of climate, soil and vegetation to simulate how plants respond to changes in climate, and produce a more accurate water balance estimate than what the state currently is using. Twine, co-developer of the new model, will use the state’s water balance model to predict how changes in water quality and quantity will affect the amount of water statewide available to industries, municipalities and ecosystems. This information can help inform water resource management decisions by state agencies and policy makers.
The third question — What is the value of clean water to Minnesota? — will be tackled by Keeler. “Planners and managers underestimate the value of water because they lack an accounting of the full costs associated with changes in water quality and quantity,” she says. The economic value of clean water includes costs associated with water treatment, lost property values, degraded recreational opportunities, beach closures and waterborne diseases, impacts to groundwater-dependent ecosystems and water-related infrastructure investments.
“Although some of this data exists, it has not been compiled for use in planning or integrated with alternative use scenarios,” says Keeler. “This project is an opportunity to apply state-of-the-art science on water and climate to Minnesota,” Keeler said. “The valuation work is really about linking this science back to impacts on households and communities so we can tell more meaningful stories about our relationship to clean water.”
Photo by Monique Dubos