Will 2016 be a watershed year for water quality or a missed opportunity? With word that Gov. Mark Dayton plans to call a water quality summit next month to address the many issues facing the state’s water supply, Minnesotans have been given a tremendous opportunity.
The big questions now are: Can state leaders come together to put Minnesota on a clear path to clean water? And can stakeholders participating in the summit identify the most impactful strategies?
There is no doubt that clean water is important to all Minnesotans. In this land of 11,842 lakes, water isn’t just a natural resource, it is part of who we are.
One need only look at the Legacy Amendment that passed in 2008 to see the level of support Minnesotans have for clean water. We voted to increase our own taxes to make sure that our strong heritage of clean land and waters remained protected.
Yet water quality issues are complex, and that can sometimes be a barrier to success. One thing that helped last year’s buffer bill — requiring grass strips along rivers, streams and ditches — ultimately pass was that the goal was understandable. Regrettably, that level of clarity has been missing in much of our state’s water quality planning. Over the years, we have seen many different plans come and go. There has been no way for the average Minnesotan to track where we are, let alone where we are headed.
And when the state has set clear goals, they have not been inspiring. The state’s 2014 Clean Water Roadmap aspired to increase the percentage of Minnesota lakes with “good” water quality by 8 percent over 20 years, leaving 30 percent of our lakes polluted. This is not enough. Nor is it enough to aim for only a 50 percent reduction in the number of drinking-water wells contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic and nitrates. Rather than speak in increments, it is time we start talking about a broader vision with concrete deadlines for reaching meaningful targets.
Summit participants will be grappling with our state’s most important natural-resource questions. Instead of asking what can be done with today’s funding, policies, strategies and partners, they should be asking what it would take to clean up our state’s waters once and for all. What steps must we take to sustainably manage the quality of both surface and groundwater; eliminate mercury and plastic pollution; stop the spread of invasive species; ensure every Minnesotan safe drinking water, and clean up every last polluted lake, river and stream for the enjoyment of future generations?
We challenge Dayton and the Legislature to build off the summit recommendations and unleash the potential of businesses, communities and every individual. How about a Clean Water Promise, setting a state goal to solve all of these water problems by the year 2050?
To some, 2050 may sound far away. To others, reaching a goal of this scope might sound impossible. The fact is that reclaiming our waters by 2050 would be a tremendous feat. It is also true that for Minnesotans, there is no acceptable alternative to actually cleaning up and protecting our waters.
As safe, clean water becomes an increasingly rare commodity around the globe, we have the opportunity to shore up our abundant supply and create a legacy that our generation can proudly hand off to the next.
Paul Austin is executive director of Conservation Minnesota; Gene Merriam is a former DFL state senator and DNR commissioner; Darby Nelson is a former DFL legislator, a biologist and the author of “For Love of Lakes,” and Dave Legvold is a Rice County farmer and environmental educator.