The Future of Minnesota Drinking Water

By Ann Lewandowski
In Minnesota, we have a remarkably effective and efficient system providing safe drinking water. But these systems face significant challenges, including an increasing array of potential contaminants from agricultural, industrial, and personal use; complex and aging infrastructure; extreme weather events; and declining populations in some communities.

To help prepare for these challenges, the Minnesota Department of Health approached the Water Resources Center and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to identify opportunities for MDH to better manage risks to drinking water. The University of Minnesota team recently completed a final project report summarizing 18 months of searching literature, examining work in other jurisdictions, and meeting with advisory panels of drinking water stakeholders and technical experts.

The report begins by acknowledging that our state is a leader in providing safe drinking water. The overarching recommendation focuses on developing a good governance system that can respond in an integrated and flexible fashion to emerging challenges and do so in a way that commands public confidence. The report presents a drinking water governance assessment framework (GAF) to help MDH staff and other stakeholders systematically examine the effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness of the entire drinking water delivery system, from source water to tap.


The report proposes that MDH revisit a statutory requirement for testing private wells at sale of property.

Some of the highlights of the recommendations are:

  • MDH should use the GAF to facilitate regular discussions internally, with water suppliers, and with other stakeholders to identify priorities for changes.

  • Increase the transparency and robustness of the integration across the agencies that impact drinking water from source to tap.

  • Engage more stakeholder groups in new ways to ensure that citizens are empowered partners and not merely informed consumers of their water supply.

  • Consider consolidation of rural water suppliers as one possible response to the financial challenges of smaller communities. Any decisions about this should be based on a detailed understanding of the varied landscape of affordability across the state -- an understanding that connects data on community demographics and population trends with income, expenses and debt status at both the family and community level, with a cost-benefit data about water technology.

  • Use comparative risk assessment as a scientific basis for prioritizing action on contaminants.

  • Consider deploying water-safety plans to make monitoring and management more customized to local needs.

  • Revisit a statutory requirement for testing private wells at sale of property.

For next steps, the MDH will begin work developing a state drinking water plan. Their process can be structured using the governance assessment framework presented in this report.