2021 Minnesota Water Resources Conference highlights natural ag solutions and meaningful research collaborations with tribal nations


WRC director Jeff Peterson announced a request for nominations for the Deb Swackhamer Early Career Award to be given out for the first time at next year’s conference.

The 2021 Minnesota Water Resources conference was in Zoom format as it was in 2020, albeit with an added level of confidence in the platform after last year’s successful presentations and record attendance. WRC director Jeff Peterson welcomed the 943 participants to the conference and announced a request for nominations for the Deb Swackhamer Early Career Award to be given out for the first time at next year’s conference. Swackhamer, formerly a WRC co-director, was active in creating the water conference as it exists today and a mentor to many students in the Water Resources Science program, died in April 2021. Committee members intend that the award “…spotlight future leaders in the understanding, management, and care of our water resources."

Tuesday’s keynote presentation The Potential for Nature-based solutions in Agricultural Landscapes was delivered by Kris Johnson, Interim Director of Agriculture for the Nature Conservancy. Agriculture can be a threat to both biodiversity and water quality. Seventy percent of our water supply is consumed by food systems. How do we provide both food and water sustainability?

The Conservancy’s nature-based approach is three-pronged: in field, edge of field and downstream. Infield work focuses on soil health, using cover crops and reduced or no tillage of the soil. The goal is to increase farmer participation in these erosion prevention techniques, resulting in meaningful water quality benefits. Edge of field efforts are critical to improving downstream water quality, all the way to the Gulf. Constructed wetlands on working farms store water on the landscape, reducing the amount of nitrate and phosphorus flowing into waterways. Cultivating wetlands also mitigate flood events and field ponding. Downstream efforts focus on flood plains, bringing low-lying farmland back to its natural state, allowing sediment to settle and plants to grow which draw up nutrients, improving water quality. Curtailing development in floodplains by buying up land prevents future flood damage and the cost of rebuilding.

Johnson reiterated that agriculture can be part of the solution, the tools exist, they work, and we need to harness the will and resources to put them to work on the landscape.

Wednesday opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award, to Mike Trojan, a long time hydrologist for the state of Minnesota. Trojan was recognized for maintaining the Minnesota Stormwater Manual, converting it from an 850-page paper document to an accessible online format, widely used and appreciated for its depth and quality of information. “Through training, presentations and discussion forums, he seeks input to ensure the manual is relevant for practitioners.”

Crystal Ng, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Minnesota, presented First We Must Consider Manoomin: Tribally Directed Collaborative Research on Wild Rice.

Ng described how what began as a research project morphed into an education in native peoples’ relationships with wild rice, or Manoomin, learning how vital collaboration with indigenous tribes, the people who care the most about Manoomin, holding it sacred. “We must repair the damage that we have done through land theft by prioritizing tribal perspectives in our research.”

Ng changed course and assembled a research team that incorporated scientists from multiple disciplines across the U including the social sciences, adding a human dimension that most importantly included tribal environmentalists, stewards, harvesters and native students. Learning about the cultural and spiritual aspects of Manoomin built a foundation of trust, while at the same time including vital indigenous knowledge into the research work. Previous work done by tribes provided a strong foundation for collaborative with Ng and the university research team.

Environmental and social justice require Ng to stand up for new research protocols. Recently resumed genetic research on wild rice at the U is happening without tribal consultation, which endangers Ng’s project as the tribes will end all collaboration with the U if this genetic research continues.

Ng encouraged her fellow scientists and researchers to create new research protocols that promote relationship building, tribal sovereignty and tribal practices.

Dates for the 2022 Minnesota Water Resources Conference are October 18 and 19. Abstract submissions will open in December 2021.