As a kid coming out of college in a water-rich state, Steve Woods remembers hearing about the Freshwater Society near Lake Minnetonka and reading its reports about water shortages in the West and in nations around the world. “I feel like I owe the Freshwater Society quite a lot because it gave me such a broader perspective,” he said.
Now Woods, 50, has an opportunity to give back. This week he takes over as executive director of the society, which was founded in 1968 and is dedicated to research, education and advocacy about freshwater issues.
He succeeds Gene Merriam, the former state senator and Department of Natural Resources commissioner who directed the society for the past six years and announced his retirement earlier this year.
Woods has an engineering and water policy background and worked at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) since 1999, most recently as its assistant director. He has been involved with water conservation and pollution prevention, and is familiar with the condition of Minnesota’s groundwater, wetlands, lakes and rivers.
As Woods prepared to begin his new job, he talked in an interview about the state’s biggest challenges in terms of water, the importance of climate change and water shortages in places such as White Bear Lake.
His responses have been edited for space.
Q: What is the Freshwater’s Society role in water and other environmental issues?
A: “We provide a multiyear, calm approach of steady influence,” Woods said. “We don’t sue people, we don’t try for headlines, and we just provide information and encourage people to use it in the best ways possible.”
Q: How do you do that?
A: Freshwater reports in 2008 and 2013 about diminishing groundwater in parts of the state received a lot of attention, Woods said, and complemented similar concerns already on the radar screens of some legislators. The reports and a society-sponsored symposium spurred much conversation at the Legislature, he said, including law changes earlier this year and additional funding to monitor groundwater supplies.
The society has also brought national water experts to Minnesota as part of an ongoing lecture series and panel discussions to broaden understanding about water and the environment.
Q: Tell me more about the groundwater concerns, since so many Minnesotans get their drinking water from private or community wells.
A: “We may think of ourselves as a water-rich region, but we are running into instances where our groundwater depletion is definitely affecting our lakes,” Woods said. “Talk to the residents around White Bear Lake, or near the many wetlands that have disappeared from northern Hennepin County.” The metro area is not in immediate danger of water shortages, he said, but it is at the point of needing to consider changes in managing water consumption.
Q: Is climate change much of a concern?
A: “Yes, that does have implications for water quality and quantity,” Woods said. “There’s a solid block of evidence saying how our rainfall and our temperature have changed over the years.” Unusually intense storms already are causing city engineers and public works directors to reassess flood risks and prepare differently to control water and prepare for emergencies, Woods said. New weather patterns also mean larger flood plains, he said, so that some homeowners who never had to worry about flooding are now eligible to buy flood insurance. “That’s going to rock some people’s worlds,” he said.
Q: How would you grade Minnesota’s water quality?
A: “We’ve done a pretty good job in this state with addressing end-of-pipe sources of pollution,” Woods said. The harder challenge is to reduce pollution from urban sources, farm fields and other “non-point” sources of chemicals, fertilizers and erosion.
One example is salt runoff from roads and highways that pollutes creeks and streams, Woods said. The society’s annual salt symposium has become a place for professionals to compare notes and share techniques about how to use less salt or substitute materials, he said, while keeping winter roads safe.
Q: What other concerns might the society focus on?
A: “You can’t have a discussion about water quality without talking about agricultural runoff,” Woods said. The society plans to “ramp up” dialogue about that, he said, but in a way that respects different farmers and types of farms. “One of the shortcomings that often happens in discussions about agriculture is that people treat it as some sort of monolithic sector rather than realizing that there are vastly different goals and norms, depending on which elements of the ag sector you’re talking about.”
Q: Any on-the-ground projects ahead for the society?
A: Freshwater will continue its Master Water Stewards program, Woods said, which just finished its first year of training volunteers to help their neighbors prevent runoff pollution through planting rain gardens and other projects. It will also continue partnering with local groups on community cleanups to keep leaves, pet waste, dirt and other debris from washing into waterways.
The good thing about those programs is that they get people physically involved, Woods said. “We’ve got a belief that people care about things that they’ve seen, or that they’ve been in, or that they’ve boated on,” he said. “They’re going to care more about things that they’ve invested some sweat equity in.”
Q: Tell me something from your experience in state government that will be helpful in your new job.
A: “There isn’t a SWAT team of state or federal workers who have shovels and silver bullets to shoot at water quality problems. Time after time where we see water quality improvements, we also see a very vocal and a very active citizenry challenging their local leadership and organizing themselves to make something good happen,” Woods said. “I’d love to see a day when citizens realize that for their lakes and rivers, they can’t count on somebody else to save the day.”