In his daily work, Ali Elhassan is immersed in the details of human water use. As manager of the water supply planning unit at the Metropolitan Council, Elhassan helps communities across the seven-county Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area coordinate the ways they get and use water from rivers, aquifers, and other natural sources.
Like virtually every other Minnesotan, Elhassan is also a water user—a runner of faucets and a flusher of toilets. And he knows that no one is perfect when it comes to water conservation. Take, for example, his family of four and their bathroom plumbing.
"Toilets are the biggest users of water inside the house," Elhassan explains. "Our house was built in 1993, so we still have toilets that use 3.8 gallons per flush. We are planning to change our toilets to new, efficient ones that use 1.28 gallons per flush. We are trying our best."
Elhassan urges others to try their best as well. The Metropolitan Council has developed a conservation toolbox, a compilation of online resources filled with inspiration and suggestions for ways people can reduce household water use. The toolbox also has other resources for businesses, communities, and water suppliers.
The residential toolbox answers questions such as, "How much water do I need to maintain a lawn?" Lawn and garden watering can cause summer residential water use to spike as high as three times winter use, which presents a huge opportunity for conservation—or efficiency, as Elhassan often calls it.
Regional water-use trends are encouraging, he says: "In the last four years, the water use in the metropolitan region is going down significantly while the population is still growing, which is a good thing."
A key reason for the decline is likely the rainfall pattern of the past four years, when ample summer rains kept lawns green and took the edge off the seasonal spike in water use. Before that, extraordinarily low rainfall statewide in 2012 made headlines, created a drought that stressed some communities' water supplies, and sent a wake-up call about water use.
There's another reason for the improvement in our water habits, Elhassan says.
"We want to give credit to the citizens. There is more awareness now about water issues since 2012. Just making people aware of how much water they use in their houses is making a big difference."
Elhassan grew up in Sudan near the life-giving Nile River in a country where water is otherwise scarce. He studied water issues in Japan and worked in water management in New Mexico and California. He now relishes living in a place where water is abundant and increasingly valued. Like many other water-aware Minnesotans, Elhassan has taken the water stewardship pledge that's part of the current Year of Water Action declared by Gov. Mark Dayton.
"Our culture is built around water in this state," Elhassan says. "And if we lose our water quantity, our water quality, we are going to lose our culture. The pledge is helping a lot as an education tool."
Elhassan helps foster communication among neighboring communities about their water supplies, shared resources that do not abide county or city borders. Again, trends are promising. In 2012, 22 metro communities were engaged in two or three subregional work groups to talk about common water issues. Now 65 communities are engaged in seven such groups. In addition, the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees groundwater quantity, has formed three pilot groundwater management areas in areas of the state that face water sustainability challenges, including one in the northeastern metro.
Because groundwater and surface waters are often connected, conservation efforts can sometimes have a visible impact on the landscape. Elhassan lauds a collaboration between Savage and Burnsville to improve their water supply and protect a calcareous fen. These rare wetlands are home to a unique and diverse ecosystem that is nourished by the upward movement of groundwater. But significant groundwater pumping was depleting the water supply of the Savage Fen Wetland Complex, which includes the 300-acre Savage Fen Scientific and Natural Area.
The DNR saw the harm to the fen and brought it to the cities' attention. Together, Savage and Burnsville found a solution. A local limestone quarry was pumping large amounts of groundwater straight to the Minnesota River to lower water levels for its mining operations. Today the quarry pumps it through a half-mile pipeline to Burnsville's water treatment plant, which treats it and sends it to residents and businesses. More water for the people, more water for the fen, less water wasted.
Such cooperation is essential if the metro region is to grow as planned without stressing our water resources, Elhassan says. From his own family's water-saving experiences, he knows that just encouraging each other a bit can help. His teenage son and daughter challenge each other into keeping their showers short. Together with low-flow showerheads, it's made a difference in their home water use.
Elhassan spreads his message wherever he can.
"Whenever I have an opportunity, I will talk to my neighbors, to citizens' groups, to different worship houses about the importance of water and why we need to keep it for our future generations. It's not a job for me, it's a passion. I love anything that's related to water."
Learn more about the Year of Water Action and take a water stewardship pledge.