Feature Stories

Among the scientists, policy makers, and natural resource experts speaking at November’s Preparing Minnesota for Climate Change: A Conference on Climate Adaptation, there’s a paper-pushing, tie-wearing insurance guy who’s become one of Minnesota’s most sought after experts on the costs of climate change.

Over the past few years, Johnson has increasingly been called upon by policy makers and politicians including Senator John Marty and former Senator Ellen Anderson to testify on Minnesota’s alarming insurance rate hikes due to natural disasters.

When Water Resources Center (WRC) co-director Faye Sleeper and LeAnn Buck of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (MASWCD) meet regularly for lunch, the conversation often focuses on the importance and challenge of getting UM research into the minds and hands of SWCD officials and staff across Minnesota. “We realized we needed a pathway to get the latest WRC and UM Extension scientific research into application, addressing land and water issues,” said Sleeper. The resulting partnership between UM Extension, WRC and MASWCD will produce three webinars per year. Earlier this year webinar offerings were: Emerging Climate Trends with Mark Seeley, and Emerging Conservation Practices, and Challenges for Agricultural Drainage with Gary Sands. The third presentation with Lee Frelich will air October 2, at 10:00am. Topics for the 2014 webinars are still under consideration.

Five years ago this November, Minnesota voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution to raise the sales tax 3/8ths of one percent and dedicate these resources to four funds: 33% for the Clean Water Fund, 33% for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund, 12.25% to the Parks & Trails Funds, and 19.75 % for the arts and cultural heritage fund. This amendment, known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, has raised approximately $85 M per year for the Clean Water Fund. This fund is then appropriated by the Legislature to supplement programs that address the protection and restoration of the state’s surface and groundwater resources.

One of the first appropriations that the Legislature made was directed to the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center (WRC) to prepare a long term plan for sustainable management of the state’s water resources and inform the long term strategy of investment by the Legislature to produce the best outcomes. The Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework was presented to the Legislature in January 2011, and contained a comprehensive, system-based set of recommendations and solutions for the ten biggest issue areas that cut across the environmental, social, and economic domains of sustainability.

The Framework is now approaching its third birthday, and as the state’s citizens evaluate the five-year progress of the Amendment investments, the WRC is assessing the extent to which the recommendations have been considered, adopted, or implemented. This assessment is summarized below. The issues are directly from the Framework.

"We don't want just random acts of conservation," he said. "We want a cumulative effect. ... We need to recognize we aren't necessarily going to get full treatment at each location, but there is a cumulative effect."

Minnesota’s reputation for weather extremes will intensify with climate change, bringing more extreme variation in the drought and flood cycle. And it’s a trend that will have an enormous impact on the state’s water resources management, says climatologist Mark Seeley.

If the plants come back, so will the bugs and the fish and the birds… the goal is to develop an ‘ecological design’ for restoration after the sediments have been cleaned up.

Throughout Minnesota, cities struggle with the goal of reducing nutrient inputs to urban lakes. The nearly completed Prior Lake Street Sweeping Study took a new look at an old practice, examining the potential of enhanced street sweeping as a source reduction BMP. The study is unique in several aspects: (1) it examined the effect of both percentage tree canopy and sweeping frequency (once, twice, and four times per month); (2) sweeping was done from snowmelt through snowfall, and therefore included autumn leaf fall (most previous studies did not); (3) tree leaves were analyzed separately from the finer sediments; and (4) costs were computed for each of nearly 400 sweeping runs.

Roughly three years ago, John Nieber of the Department of Bioproducts and Bioengineering and John Gulliver of the Department of Civil Engineering submitted a grant request to the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) to investigate the lack of water in dry years throughout Minnehaha Creek. Minnehaha Creek is arguably one of the most valued surface water features in the Minneapolis, MN metro area and is heavily used for recreation during the spring, summer, and fall. Flow in Minnehaha Creek is heavily dependent on discharge from the stream’s origin, Lake Minnetonka, the outlet of which is closed during most late summer periods to maintain water elevations in the lake resulting in low- (or no-) flow conditions in the creek. In addition, stormwater runoff entering directly to the creek from the creek’s largely urbanized watershed exacerbates extremes in flow conditions. As a result of these issues, there was interest in enhancing the cultural and ecosystem services provided by Minnehaha Creek through improvements in streamflow regime by reducing flashiness and sustaining increased low-flows.

The Water Resources Center will host the annual conference at the St. Paul RiverCentre, October 14 and 15, 2014. Conference goers can expect a variety of new water resource solutions, management techniques, and current research about Minnesota’s water resources. Concurrent sessions throughout the day will offer information on engineering projects, best practices in design and application of water resource management methods, water policy and emerging issues. A morning plenary session begins each day of the conference, and luncheons will also feature a speaker. Topics this year include climate impacts on water resources, invasive common carp, and using LiDAR and spatial analysis.

Although she’s stepped down from the co-directorship of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center (WRC), don’t expect Deb Swackhamer to fade away. She remains a University professor of science technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, a professor of environmental health sciences with the School of Public Health and leaves a legacy of water protection literally, on the books.

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