Virtual Minnesota Water Resources Conference serves up solid science, outcomes

Like many events in 2020, the Minnesota Water Resources Conference went virtual and drew one of the largest group of participants in its history, with over 800 water resource professionals.  The conference featured keynote speakers, concurrent sessions and a live virtual poster session using a new online platform called Slack.  85% of participants indicated they would recommend the conference to colleagues.  Going virtual had some added advantages.  Concurrent presentations and posters were available to conference participants – which allowed easy access to the many important topics and issues facing Minnesota water resources.


Deb Swackhamer counts her lead authorship of the 2010 Minnesota Water Framework as one of her most satisfying accomplishments.

Tuesday’s session opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award, named in honor of DNR hydrologist Dave Ford, recognizing others in the water field who also have made an indelible impact on Minnesota’s environmental landscape. The 2020 award recipient was Deb Swackhamer, Former Water Resources Center Co-director and Professor Emerita of Science, Technology, and Public Policy, Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In accepting her award, Swackhamer credited her success to her innate love of water, recalling many summers spent on the shores of the lake Ontario district, and to her students. She counts her lead authorship of the 2010 Minnesota Water Framework as one of her most satisfying accomplishments. Over 200 water professionals contributed to the Framework and many proposals put forth in it have been enacted by the state of Minnesota.

Two keynote speakers anchored each day of the conference. Jennifer Day, the Great Lakes Regional Coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) highlighted Collaboration in Water Resource Management - The New Normal.  Collaboration has become a management buzz word. She elaborated on how this has changed the ways water professionals work together, and how collaborations will affect future water resources projects and partnerships. Day also highlighted the work of NOAA and its partners in the region including the University of Minnesota and the trend for even more future collaboration. Her presentation included a recent short video about NOAA’s work in the Great Lakes

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Heger addressed emerging issues and challenges in wastewater management.

Sara Heger, from the Center’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program, offered reflections gleaned after her many years of research and training on onsite sewage treatment across the state.  Her talk, Down the Drain: Successful Collaborations and Emerging Issues for Decentralized Wastewater Management, focused on the 32 percent of Minnesota households using a septic system, with 25 percent of those systems near surface water, making expert septic system installation and maintenance essential to human and environmental health.  Heger addressed emerging issues and challenges in wastewater management. In the time of pandemic, use of bacteria-killing cleaners increased, which negatively affect septic systems which rely on good bacteria to break down and clean household and commercial waste. 

Heger also highlighted OSTP’s current project which studies chloride in our waterways, why levels are elevated and where it comes from. Road salt, fertilizers and water softeners all contribute to chloride levels. Updated training for plow drivers, education for famers on quantity and timing of fertilizer application Upgrading old softeners would reduce salt use and conserve water.

Wastewater reuse in the future could irrigate farmland and landscapes, though Heger cautioned that graywater also has pathogens and organic matter that would need mitigating before we “just throw it on the garden.” Heger also suggested that consumers re-think their use of garbage disposals, which load septic systems and wastewater plants with organics which complicates water treatment, requiring larger effluent tanks in septic systems  and additional treatment steps at wastewater plants

Fifty three presentations were given during concurrent sessions offered through Zoom breakout rooms and twenty four posters were presented using the new online platform called Slack. 

The 2021 Minnesota Water Resources Conference will be held October 19-20.