Record attendance at the 2015 Minnesota Water Conference

Over 700 water professionals attended the Minnesota Water Conference at RiverCentre in downtown St. Paul, October 12 and 13. Plenary presentations and concurrent sessions offered information on topics ranging from the history of Minnesota water policy, corporate/environmental partnerships that benefit water quality and economic bottom lines, and possible solutions to the problem of spent water from the oil fracking process.
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John Gulliver (WRS faculty, CE) presented the Dave Ford award to Bruce C. Wilson in recognition of Wilson's water resources work at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The conference opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award to Bruce C. Wilson by John Gulliver (WRS faculty, CE). The award is named for DNR hydrologist Dave Ford and recognizes individuals whose lifetime accomplishments contribute to improving Minnesota's water quality. Calling Wilson “a driver” Gulliver highlighted Wilson’s 32 years at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he developed many water quality tools that made Minnesota the envy of other states. He played an important role in creating Atlas 14, which estimates future precipitation amounts, and assists engineers designing culverts and stormwater runoff ponds.

Executive Director of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network Tom Schuler presented Tuesday morning’s plenary talk, Managing Nutrient Reduction at the Watershed Scale: Early Lessons Learned from the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. Schuler described the Chesapeake Bay watershed as 64,000 square miles, with 60% of forest remaining and 10% farmland. Over 30 years, a “pollution diet” was implemented, which significantly reduced pollution in the watershed, particularly when restrictions shifted from voluntary to regulatory. After removing much of the “low-hanging fruit” of urban pollution, elevated levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment remain a stubborn problem.  Now it gets more difficult says Schuler, to solve non-point agricultural pollution. At the federal level, the EPA can deliver regulations to mitigate non-point pollution, but states determine how those regulations are executed. Suggesting that regulatory measure are necessary, Schuler declared, “Regulation creates innovation.”

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WRC Director Jeff Peterson, The Nature Conservancy's Lisa Kushner, General Mills' Ellen Silva and WRC Associate Director Faye Sleeper following Kushner and Silva's presentation "Creating Shared Value – Advancing Water Stewardship through NGO/Industry Collaboration."

Tuesday’s luncheon presentation, Creating Shared Value – Advancing Water Stewardship through NGO/Industry Collaboration, was presented by Ellen Silva, General Mills and Lisa Kushner, The Nature Conservancy. Siting the daunting task of feeding nine billion people in the year 2050 with a dwindling water supply, Silva and Kushner made a compelling argument for environmental and corporate teamwork in water stewardship. Food production requires lots of water use, beyond the factory walls, into the entire production stream of farmers and producers. Water scarcity puts food companies like General Mills at risk; they need a healthy environment to succeed. General Mills needed a partner to provide them with credible science and guidance to create a global strategy and the Nature Conservancy has proven well able to work side by side with business.

The Conservancy believes that for-profit companies are key to solving environmental problems, and concern about the bottom line drives business to mitigate risk, benefitting both the economy and the environment. In turn, General Mills sees the Conservancy as a pragmatic, science-based partner in their goal to protect and sustain both natural resources key to products as well as maintaining a healthy profit. The pair spoke in detail about the drought in California affecting the food supply and creating depleted groundwater levels, and about their concerted efforts to conserve water in California, with the extreme conditions bringing the topic of groundwater into the public forum and for the first time, water regulations have been imposed on groundwater in California; General Mills believes that sometimes business needs and wants regulation.

Silva and Kushner agree that while the goals of their organizations might differ, focusing on common areas of interest and working together helps the environment and the economy.

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WRC Associate Director Faye Sleeper, speaker Larry Wackett and committee co-chair Randy Neprash, Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition & Stantec. Wackett spoke on "Fracking and the Nexus of Water and Energy" at Wednesday's morning plenary session.

Wednesday morning’s speaker was UM Professor Larry Wackett, presenting Fracking and the Nexus of Water and Energy. Wackett provided an overview of the fracking process, drilling 2-4 miles down into oil-rich shale and releasing oil and gas by forcing down water under great pressure, while also using sand to keep the cracks in the shale open to allow the oil to continue to flow. It is a very water intensive process, occurring domestically mostly in the American west, where water is scarce.  Wackett discussed the conundrum of dealing with the polluted water, detailing the content of the spent liquid, radio topes, bacteria, salts and hyrodcarbons. Recycling the water and using it again in the fracking process would be ideal. In reality, the water is full of plant and animal matter, which fouls the drilling equipment. Also the high salt content caused corrosion of the drilling machinery.

Spent fracking water has been dumped into old wells, potentially endangering groundwater, evaporated, at great energy expense, and treated with reverse osmosis, which is very expensive and leaves a salty residue that requires disposal.

Wackett offered hope for the future suggesting using organisms that have proven effective in eating hydrocarbons. Municipal water treatment plants use them to clean water and they were also part of the BP Gulf oil spill cleanup. Wackett advocates using selected organisms to do what is needed with fracking water, “tuning biology to the process.”

Len Price of the Minnesota Conservation Corps was the speaker for Wednesday’s luncheon, offering “Reflections on Water.” Price talked about his years in the Minnesota House of Representatives where he was very involved in creating water policy. Minnesotans are living upstream and thus have a responsibility to those living downstream from us.

Consensus on water policy is difficult, but sometimes controversy is a call to action and people come together to create water policy that protects human and environmental health. Everyone has a role to play in public policy, “You have to advise your legislators,” said Price, “and we need to educate the public so they understand the important role of regulation and strong water policy to protect our water resources.