I applaud Gov. Mark Dayton’s challenge to cut water pollution by 25 percent by 2025 (“ ‘Call to action’ on clean water,” Feb. 4). We have an ethical responsibility to ensure safe, clean water. But I’d like to offer one way to think about solving these problems differently.

To paraphrase Einstein, you can’t fix a problem within the same framework that created it. Continuing with current efforts and approaches means we will need tens of billions of dollars and centuries of time. Are we willing or able to take a substantial percentage of Minnesota’s agricultural acreage out of production? Probably not.

Minnesota’s water challenges are huge — look at the numbers: According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, we expect a 6 percent to 8 percent reduction in water pollution with the current efforts, which include spending $2.5 billion to $3 billion over 25 years, including 60,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and the buffer initiative. Analyzing these current efforts, it would take at least 77 to 105 years, plus an additional $9 billion to $11 billion, to reach the 25 percent goal. At the recent Governor’s Water Summit, we learned that the half-billion-dollar CREP program will address about one-third of 1 percent of the state’s agricultural lands. Considering that a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus is required for the Mississippi River watershed, we are a long way from denting the problem.

Dayton’s new challenge greatly compresses the schedule to eight years (or six following possible legislative action in 2018) and hints that this can be accomplished without regulation — just by Minnesotans adopting a clean-water ethic. It’s a nice idea, but there is strong evidence it won’t work.

A recent Environmental Protection Agency assessment found that there has been no net change in the nation’s lake water quality (among sewage-impacted lakes) since the adoption of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Attaining clean water is a nationwide problem a long time in the making. Against this backdrop, the magnitude of Minnesota’s water quality problem is daunting. Small tweaks and voluntary actions will be woefully insufficient. A clean-water ethic must include a commitment to substantial changes and an entirely new way of thinking.

We treat human waste by collecting it, routing it to sewage treatment facilities, treating it, then discharging it clean (that is, within applicable water-quality standards). This approach is acceptable, even desirable. Can we imagine requiring Minnesota homeowners and businesses to treat their waste on-site? Almost certainly not. So, let’s consider a similar approach for agricultural and urban runoff — collect it, treat it and discharge it clean.

We produce food mostly by cultivating land. This has been necessary for centuries because of increasing human population — hunting and gathering is neither adequate nor efficient. The tools of precision fertilizer application, shifting to perennial crops, buffer strips, vegetarianism, rain gardens, stormwater ponds, etc. are good tools — just not good enough in light of the huge problem.

I suggest we consider adopting a new approach that collects and treats polluted runoff at the “end of the pipe.” Technologies are available to do this, and there are examples around the country. In the Orlando, Fla., area, “nutrient reduction facilities” are used to reduce nutrients from agricultural and urban runoff by 90 percent or more at costs of one-third to one-twentieth those of upstream management practices. And the impacts occur quickly — within a few years, compared with decades, centuries or more.

If, 45 years after the Clean Water Act, we still have large water-quality challenges, we must ask — is our water quality really that bad? Or should we approach cleaning our water differently? Minnesota’s (and the nation’s) water quality requires effective and timely action. The way we are approaching the challenge is not effective.

It’s unproductive and inappropriate to point fingers. The reality is that agriculture and urban living pollute our water. But it’s also a reality that Minnesotans value agriculture and urban living — and clean water. It’s unrealistic to expect we will reach our water-quality goals within the framework we’ve been using for almost half a century. Minnesota’s thought leaders need to seriously and realistically look to new approaches for safe, clean water.

 

Dick Osgood, of Duluth, is the co-founder of Lake Advocates.