“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
— John F. Kennedy
It’s nearly a decade since Minnesotans passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, voting in the midst of a deep recession to pay additional taxes primarily to protect the state’s endangered waters. It’s time for something dramatic to happen again, only this time it’s not so much additional money that our water resources need — it’s water management reform.
The Trump administration has dismissed academic leadership from an Environmental Protection Agency scientific review board and has proposed serious financial cuts to state environmental programming. That should signal that we, as Minnesotans, have to take responsibility for our own environment. After all, the federal EPA has been the major engine providing state and local governments with money, mandates and threats to better safeguard ecosystems, especially air and water. Now, that role seems to be seriously fading out. We need to step up.
The Star Tribune’s three-part series last October, “Danger Downstream,” offered as clear an indictment of Minnesota’s water mismanagement as any of the dozens of similar policy papers, academic publications and real-life incidents.
As environmental educators Dave Legvold and Darby Nelson, former DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam, and Conservation Minnesota’s Paul Austin depressingly put it in an Opinion page commentary, “Different [water] plans come and go.” Good things sometimes do happen, but it is simply not even close to what we need. Minnesota’s political and bureaucratic machine just cannot stomach serious reform in state water policy.
Maybe the EPA’s “leadership crisis” is just what we need to jar us into actually cleaning up our administrative act.
This “crisis” dynamic has happened before with states and water.
In the 1970s, the quality of Arizona’s waters was in profound crisis, and everyone knew that the state’s messy bureaucratic and political systems couldn’t manage a coherent response.
Money and people were pouring into Arizona’s rapidly developing desert communities and sucking out water at simply unsustainable levels. The huge copper-mining industry was guzzling water and pumping out toxic sludge 24/7. Agriculture, especially cotton farming, was watering desert land with industrial sprinklers via diversions from the Colorado River, with a huge percentage of water evaporating into the dry desert air. Lobbyists from all of these financial interests, and the complex state and local bureaucracies that supported and regulated them, were in a zombielike state of gridlock (not so different from what almost happened to Gov. Mark Dayton’s guidelines for buffer strips along potentially contaminated ditches and streams).
Recognizing the desperate situation, Arizona’s governor called a special legislative session, set guidelines for what lobbyists should and should not do, and communicated to the public — with politically unnatural clarity — the threat they were facing and the burdens they would have to endure.
Today, Arizona uses less water, not per capita but less total water, even with a near-tripling of the population. Cotton farmers use drip irrigation, copper mines have applied closed-loop water recycling, and strict rules are in place — with serious penalties — to control domestic water use, from lawns and golf courses to washing cars.
Something similar in terms of civics happened in New York state in the late 1990s. New York City reservoirs were chronically choked with phosphorus and nitrogen, primarily from upstate farming. Over 100 sewage plants confronted depleted oxygen levels, and open water was foul with algae blooms. As in Arizona, New York’s waters were in crisis.
Politicians and turf-focused bureaucrats put the political game-playing aside and formalized a clear and forceful state water plan, starting in January 1997. By 2008, New York was given good grades for water purity by the EPA, and because of tightened management, the state had saved up to $7 billion in unnecessary construction and operational costs. Another positive effect was the creation of hundreds of acres of forest and recreational land.
So, does Minnesota have a water crisis?
The state supports a battery of overlapping state agencies, each with typically inconsistent water plans and water-control policies and approaches. At local levels, water is managed by a scrambled mixture of watershed districts, county soil and water boards, zoning authorities, river and lake councils, and unique sets of local joint powers agreements.
These odd and erratic clusters of state and local governments that control waters are typically staffed by competent people; however, given the Byzantine system in which they work, and no comprehensive state water plan, serious and necessary reform is an illusion.
Despite the Legacy Amendment and other well-meaning programs, huge amounts of surface water are constantly polluted. Even Minnesota’s 2014 Clean Water Roadmap aspires to clean up only 8 percent of lakes over the next 20 years. The groundwater issues are obvious, with nitrogen burdens threatening drinking water safety.
We must accept that:
1. Minnesota’s water management system is incapable of addressing its water challenges.
2. Help isn’t coming from the federal government.
3. We need a single, clear, transparent state water plan.
4. State agencies and local governments must accept No. 3.
5. Reform will create disruptions — but it’s necessary.
It just might be that we finally have one of John Kennedy’s crisis-generated opportunities.
Bruce Bomier is the board chairman of the nonprofit Environmental Resource Council and the former CEO of IEA, an engineering firm with offices throughout Minnesota.