Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Minnesota’s dirty water dilemma

By Shawn Perich

Every week it seems, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune runs another story about Minnesota’s polluted water. Last Sunday, the newspaper’s website contained a photo essay about the community of Edgerton, where chemicals applied to surrounding farms leach into the local aquifer, making the town’s water unfit to drink without extra, expensive treatment. In recent weeks, there have been stories warning about blue green algae in farming region lakes, which can kill dogs that drink it and make kids sick if they go swimming in it. From the north come reports of how the state has turned a blind eye to polluted mining runoff for decades.

Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, may need to change its slogan. “Don’t Drink the Water” might be a little strong, but considering that better than 40 percent of our waterways do not meet state water quality standards, it may be appropriate. Since there seems to be little public outcry about the sorry state of so many of our lakes, perhaps “Love that Dirty Water” is a better fit.

Minnesotans talk a good game when it comes to conservation and the environment, but too often we are all blow and no show. Governor Dayton recently learned this when he tried to enforce the existing law requiring buffer strips along state waterways. While he was applauded by the conservation community, he was met with a tepid response from state bureaucrats and politicians. While the Legislature eventually passed new buffer strip rules, it was abundantly clear that politicians were more concerned with accommodating the demands of industrial agriculture than they were about providing the citizens of Minnesota with clean water.

These are the same politicians who eliminated the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens Board, apparently as harsh political payback after the board required an Environmental Impact Statement for a large confined animal feeding operation. According to the former chair of the citizen’s board, the operations owners didn’t have enough land available to spread even one-half of the manure it would produce, nor did they have data to show how their water consumption would affect other farming operations in the area. It seems fair to say these are questions the citizens of Minnesota would want answered before permitting the operation.

Again, it seems clear that state politicians aren’t really concerned about what is best for the citizens of the state. In fact, it is difficult to imagine why the average citizen would want to abolish the MPCA’s Citizens Board. Most of us consider citizen involvement in government a good thing. Politicians and bureaucrats don’t necessarily share that view.

Minnesota is a headwaters state. How we take care of our water is important everyone living downstream in the Mississippi, Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds. Since we like to pontificate about how we do everything better in Minnesota, you’d think having the cleanest water in the nation would be a point of pride. Clearly, it isn’t.

About the only time you’ll hear a Minnesotan talk about water quality is in context with the Boundary Waters, recently via opposition of new mining operations. I’ve also found that if you try to shift the conversation from proposed mining (which is receiving intense scrutiny from federal, state and tribal environmental agencies) to existing water pollution elsewhere in the state, you’ll be met at best with a blank stare or shrug of the shoulders. The passion for reducing pollution and improving water quality just isn’t there.

This is a problem, because poor water quality is the common denominator of our most vexing conservation problems. It is not a stretch to say Minnesota hunters would shoot more pheasants on a landscape drained by clean-flowing streams. That’s because there is an intrinsic link between a healthy landscape and clean water. The same is true for breeding and migrating waterfowl, white-tailed deer, native fish, monarch butterflies and host of other creatures, great and small. This isn’t rocket science, but it is science that collectively, we choose to ignore.

A significant portion of Minnesota’s economy is driven by agriculture. Certainly, our stature as a world producer of agriculture products is something we need to nurture and protect. But we can’t allow one aspect of the state economy to override everything else. And when we reach a point where the water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes isn’t safe for swimming or fit for drinking, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

At this juncture, it is fair to say that neither the Minnesota Legislature nor the state’s congressional delegation is even paying lip service to ensuring the citizens they serve have clean water or a healthy environment. Yet none of these politicians are seriously challenged by the citizenry for their inaction in addressing water quality issues or their adoption polluter-friendly policies that cause the problems in the first place. That needs to change.

In 2016, nearly every politician in Minnesota will be up for re-election. There is no better time for water quality to become an election issue. But the only way it will become one is if voters demand it. It is unlikely that any candidate from either party will make clean water a plank of their campaign, especially in rural districts. And it is even more unlikely that any incumbent from either party will be willing to bite the hand that pays them—the agricultural lobby. It would be surprising to see the state’s mainstream conservation and environmental organizations having the spine necessary to champion the cause of clean water. They, too, seem increasingly unwilling to bite the hand that pays them; the politicians who dole out government funds for conservation purposes.

It will take a grassroots uprising of voters demanding clean water to make a political difference. Even if such an uprising occurs, we the people face a system stacked against us. As long as someone is making a buck by polluting our waters, they’ll fight tooth and nail in order to continue doing so. That doesn’t mean change can’t occur, but making it happen won’t be easy. Then again, when it comes to doing right by our lands and waters, it never is.

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