Fall 2016 Director's Corner

I hope you are enjoying the Minnegram’s new look that we introduced in the summer issue. Look for additional enhancements and new content streams that we’ll be rolling out in the coming year.

I am excited about the upcoming Minnesota Water Resources Conference. My first year co-chairing the conference has been a great experience, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the planning committee, co-chair Karen Jensen, and of course the larger community of water resource professionals who submitted abstracts. The response to our call for abstracts this year was overwhelming, with a record number of submissions that were as high in quality as anyone on the committee can remember.  I am really looking forward to the diverse array of presentations. Committee members have also planned special sessions on two timely and much-discussed topics: Social Justice in Water Supply and The Waters of the United States Rules: Wetland Protection vs. Drainage Rights. In an historic milestone, the conference will feature an appearance by a sitting governor, with Governor Mark Dayton to address the luncheon audience on the second day. Other plenary sessions will feature highly sought after speakers, including Chris Kolb, who co-chaired the Flint Water Task Force in Michigan, Craig McLean, Assistant Administrator for Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Minnesota’s own Professor David Mulla, who will speak water quality issues related to agriculture. In addition, we’re also introducing new features this year including a mentoring program for young professionals, background music, and Water Bar. I hope you can join us!  

Events like our conference always bring to my mind an interesting paradox about water resource management. On the one hand, an unmistakable message one from many talks is that water management is highly localized. Conditions vary tremendously and management units are appropriately small, so that the blend of management issues facing any one location are unique.  One the other hand, one of the basic properties of water resources is that they are connected, so that the way water resources are used in one place affects the health of water resources elsewhere. Moreover, if one steps back to examine the richly varied cases, a number of common themes emerge. We face our own unique set of water challenges in different parts of Minnesota, but the issues we face and the way we handle them connect us to other places. I expect both localization and connectedness will be themes that you’ll be able to find in our conference in October.

Over the last few months, I’ve been able to participate in some national and international events that highlight the ways that local water management challenges are threads in a very large tapestry. I’ve just returned from the International Water Resources Economics Consortium meeting hosted by the World Bank. The World Bank and other institutions focused on economic development in low income countries increasingly see water as a limiting factor in achieving all sustainable development goals. The U.S. Federal Reserve system is also paying attention to the potential limiting factor of water in the national economy, particularly in agriculture, with the Kansas City branch recently hosting a symposium on the topic. As a recent World Bank report notes, in addition to being an issue of environmental stewardship, managing our water resources is critical to improving and sustaining livelihoods across the world. With the planet becoming ever more crowded, this is one of the grand challenges of our time.

The nature of the challenge was clearly displayed in the recent 10th International Drainage Symposium, which the Water Resources Center was pleased to co-host with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.  This year’s symposium took on historic significance, as the series has now continued for 50 years with the first such event taking place in Chicago in 1965. Attendance this year shattered previous attendance records, reflecting robust local participation as well as a resurgent interest in the topic globally. Invited speakers at the conference reflected on the history of agricultural drainage and looked ahead toward emerging challenges. In the early decades of the Twentieth Century, public policies encouraged drainage, seeing it as an imperative to be able to bring new lands into production as population expanded, and to provide other benefits like protecting transportation infrastructure.  A profession of drainage engineering emerged to design and improve drainage systems.  At one point in its history the University of Minnesota had a Department of Drainage Engineering, which later merged into what is now the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering.  While drainage remains essential for production in many parts of the world, the offsite impacts of drainage on water resources have received increasing attention as time has passed, refocusing the role of drainage engineers and drawing in expertise from related fields. The current symposium program was rich with presentations about studies that characterized offsite impacts and tested emerging technologies to mitigate them. A proceedings of the conference will be published, which will be released on the conference website.

While looking for ways to resolve our local challenges, I have found it productive to uncover the ways they are connected to the global picture.