Water is essential to our way of life in Minnesota — our lakes and rivers are a big part of what makes Minnesota a great place to live, work and play. We depend on the Mississippi River for so much, including clean drinking water for more than 1 million people in the Twin Cities and beyond.

At Ecolab, our purpose is to make the world cleaner, safer and healthier while protecting people and vital resources. Since the founding of our company nearly 100 years ago, Ecolab has focused on products and services that can help businesses reduce water and energy consumption and lower their impact on the environment.

Sustainability is integral to all we do. Through technology and on-site service, we help companies around the world achieve their goals while minimizing environmental impact. We focus every day on finding new solutions to help deliver clean water, safe food, abundant energy and healthy environments while saving water and energy and reducing waste. We believe that good stewardship of our natural resources is important for the sake of the planet — and it is also good business.

We are fortunate that near where the Mississippi River starts, in north-central Minnesota, the river is in generally good health. In contrast, many lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are degraded to the point where it is no longer safe to swim or fish in them.

The problem is that pollution in the Mississippi Headwaters region is rising due to the conversion of natural lands to housing, food production and industrial development. We face a choice in Minnesota today: Act now to protect and preserve the Mississippi River or do nothing and try to clean it up when — not if — it becomes heavily polluted.

New research shows that the economic benefits of clean water are substantial — they measure $130 million in direct benefits, including water treatment costs that are avoided, property values that are retained, and tourism revenue and jobs.

An additional $360 million in indirect benefits are projected due to cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions, and the resulting reduction in public health costs from respiratory ailments, cancer and other illnesses.

The Nature Conservancy has done the research and identified about 200,000 acres of land, out of 13 million acres in the Mississippi Headwaters, that are the most critical targets for protection or restoration. The cost of protecting and restoring these 200,000 acres could be as much as $500 million over the next 10 years.

If we do nothing, however, it will cost billions to try to clean the river after it becomes seriously polluted. Research shows that if the Mississippi becomes as degraded as the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota, it would cost $2.7 billion to restore the Mississippi. Restoring lakes throughout the Mississippi River's headwaters area could cost an additional $4 billion.

The research is clear — acting now to protect and preserve the Mississippi Headwaters area through conservation and restoration will save us far more in the long run, and it will ensure clean drinking water and healthy rivers and lakes that are essential to our state's economy and our quality of life.

This is important for not only Ecolab and other businesses working to attract top talent to our region. It's also an essential investment in rural communities, towns and cities where everyone benefits from clean, clear water and the people who come there to enjoy it.

Minnesota owes so much to the Mississippi River that has helped shape our history and build our economy. We owe it to the river and to future generations to protect the Mississippi. It's one of the best investments Minnesota can make.

Doug Baker is chairman and CEO of Ecolab.