Gov. Mark Dayton sought to unify Minnesotans around solving the state's emerging water challenges at a St. Paul summit Saturday that brought together hundreds of activists, farmers, lobbyists, legislators and regulators.

But even as those present spoke of hope and resolve, the costs and conflicts surrounding water issues were immediately evident, as a group of demonstrators interrupted Dayton's opening remarks to protest the construction of oil pipelines they said would threaten water quality and cultural touchstones like wild rice farming in tribal lands.

After Dayton promised to meet with the protesters, they left the stage, and he continued, not by proposing laws or regulations, but by sounding more like a pastor of water.

"What we really need is to establish an ethic of clean water practices," he said. "I urge you, and I ask you, to spend today establishing our ethic: that clean water practices are every Minnesotan's responsibility. That anything less is unacceptable. And that it's achievable if all of us do our part."

Dayton made water quality a top priority last year after seeing a report from the state's Pollution Control Agency that showed half the lakes and streams in southern Minnesota are not safe for fishing or swimming. A separate report released last week said nearly two-thirds of test wells in central Minnesota are contaminated with excessive levels of nitrates, a common fertilizer.

Last year, the DFL governor engaged in a protracted negotiation with legislators and farm groups over a water quality measure that sought to require buffers around waterways to protect them from pesticide and fertilizer pollution, a measure that is still controversial among farmers.

The state's $19 billion farm economy continues to be a key fault line in water debates.

"I was alarmed when the governor prefaced his remarks by saying we weren't going to point any fingers today, and then he proceeded to spend all his speech pointing all the fingers at agriculture," said Rep. Paul Torkelson. The Hanska Republican is chairman of the bonding committee that will hear Dayton's proposal to spend $220 million on water treatment projects, much of it in outstate communities to remove agricultural contaminants from drinking water.

Regulation or buy-in?

All Minnesotans — those who live in cities and those who live on any of the state's 75,000 farms — have some responsibility when it comes to water quality, Torkelson said.

Dayton voiced a similar sentiment throughout the day.

Darren Newville, district manager of the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District, said he wants continued focus on voluntary buy-in from farmers, as opposed to a regulatory approach. "Let's give education and voluntary adoption a chance to work," he said. "A lot of these guys are already doing it."

Anita Foster of Mosaic, a large manufacturer of phosphate fertilizers, also expressed skepticism about regulation during a panel of business leaders moderated by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who moved to Minnesota in the 1980s to work for General Mills.

Smith said she hoped the summit injected a sense of urgency into the debate, because problems become worse and more expensive if left to fester.

The group Friends of the Mississippi River released a statement even as the banquet tables were being taken down: "To protect and restore the health of the Mississippi River and our state's iconic waters, we must reduce agricultural pollution." The group called for economic incentives to be shifted from corn and soybeans to cover crops and perennials that would improve water quality.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he was happy to hear blunt talk about the state's aging and crumbling water infrastructure, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates will require $11 billion of maintenance in the coming years.

"The question is, who pays?" Hansen said. He said the only fair solution is a system in which those who create pollution pay to clean it up.

Next up: Policymaking

In a news conference afterward, Dayton said he will gather with commissioners and staff to formulate policies based on what they learned at the summit.

He said he already decided that Minnesota would hold a week of "action events" in April around clean water and build a central online destination for information about water quality. He emphasized that nothing will happen in either the metro region or outstate unless and until all Minnesotans insist on it.

Hansen recalled being at a similar summit at the same downtown St. Paul hotel 30 years ago.

"I'm hopeful there's some action, because I don't know if I have 30 years to come to the next one," he said.

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042