In the past five years, I've seriously deepened my knowledge about Minnesota's water resources. One reason is that I've written and edited many stories for this magazine that revolve around water quantity and quality, including a series of profiles of "water champions." My conversations with a farmer, a regional water planner, and, in this issue, a lake advocate have all opened my eyes to facets of the wider water picture.
Another reason for my aqua-curiosity is that my family moved to a home with its own well, and there's nothing like your kids drinking water straight out of the ground under your house to make you think hard about what's in that water. We effectively run our own mini treatment plant, filtering, softening, and removing iron from the groundwater, as well as getting it tested for common contaminants. Still, my wife and I worry: Two years ago, the lake a stone's throw from our home bloomed with toxic cyanobacteria fueled by excess nutrients, likely from lawn fertilizer and pet waste. More concerning, the Minnesota Department of Health and the state Pollution Control Agency recently notified us that they want to test our well for the 3M perfluorochemicals that taint the Prairie du Chien–Jordan aquifer from which we and many of our neighbors in the eastern Twin Cities area draw our water.
Altogether, our experience reminds me that even in water-abundant Minnesota, we need to be careful with how we treat our waters, and that some mistakes can be hard to undo.
Minnesotans are showing signs of progress in water stewardship. Among them: The Twin Cities metropolitan area, with the state's densest concentration of household water users, has used less water per person for several years, according to one of our water champions, Ali Elhassan, a planner at the Metropolitan Council. That's important because the area's population is projected to nearly double in 30 years, and we've already seen signs of strain on water resources, especially in the northeastern metro where the DNR has established a new groundwater management area. More communities are meeting to talk about water supply and partner on solutions, says Elhassan.
Minnesotans have a strong voice for clean water in the governor's office. Gov. Mark Dayton, who has declared a Year of Water Action and has urged citizens to take a water stewardship pledge, pushed hard for a buffer law to protect state waterways and has backed other laws and policies to improve water quality, invest in clean water infrastructure, and protect wetlands and wildlife habit. Dayton memorably stated, "The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us."
Amid these signs of hope are red flags. More than 40 percent of state waters are deemed impaired or polluted by the MPCA, and in southwestern Minnesota, not a single lake is considered fishable or swimmable. Mercury is a pervasive pollutant, found in 36 percent of state waterways. Aquatic invasive species have turned up in nearly 600 lakes. In farm country, ever-expanding tile drainage systems rush rainwater off the land and impair river water quality and hydrology. In urban areas, lawn fertilizer and pet waste send loads of excess nutrients into rivers. In the northeast, the state faces momentous decisions about allowing copper-nickel mining near some of our most pristine water resources.
It's clear we face challenges. We can start by not being complacent—by not thinking that just because we live in the land of 10,000 lakes we simply don't have any real water issues. We do. Fortunately, they can be addressed if we have the foresight and fortitude to confront them together and forge a well-planned water future.
Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett, in her book Blue Revolution, calls for America to adopt a new water ethic akin to Aldo Leopold's famous land ethic. "The fundamental belief in water as a national treasure to be preserved has to catch on at every level of society," she writes.
As it often does, water courses through the magazine in this issue. Michael Kallok's story "Diving for Aliens" covers research into freshwater sponges, small animals that we know little about. Scientists are learning that the sponges seem to prefer clean northern waters and may be an indicator of water quality. My profile of water champion Ron Faust, "Keeping It Natural," shows that some people don't retire to a lake home just to sit there. They get involved in the local lake association and make good things happen. Finally, Kallok's Field Note about graywater reuse shows DNR water innovation at work in our newest state park.
Immerse yourself in these stories—and this summer, immerse yourself in one of Minnesota's swimmable, and precious, lakes or rivers.
Keith Goetzman, acting editor