Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework: A three year progress report

By Deb Swackhamer

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.

Issue A: A Clean and Abundant Water Supply

The concerns identified around this issue are all being addressed, to some degree. The geological county atlases and hydrologic mapping necessary to inform models of our water balance have been accelerated by legislative investments, although they are still will not be completed for another 15-20 years. The legislature has invested more funds in expanding DNR’s observation well network that will eventually supply the necessary data to be used in these models (they currently have 700 of the 8000 that are estimated to be needed). Finally, the recommended updates and improvements to the DNR water appropriations permits were embraced and are currently being implemented. In particular, the DNR is developing “sustainability standards” for withdrawals that are linked to minimal surface flows to protect ecosystem function.

Issue B: Excess Nutrients and Conventional Pollutants

This issue largely relates to existing and future impaired waters and attaining successful pollutant load reductions of conventional pollutants to restore those waters and meet federal standards. The Framework advocates for the development of state-wide integrated nutrient management plans, and one positive example of such an effort is the Nitrogen Reduction Strategy just released by the MPCA.

The two boldest recommendations from the Framework are aimed at addressing unregulated, non-point source pollution – to have equity in achieving load reductions by including all pollutant sources in the solution, and to require load reductions from all sources be mandatory. These recommendations are largely aimed at including (requiring) the un-regulated agricultural community in reducing nutrient, sediment, and bacterial loadings. The specific approaches for how to achieve these recommendations have not been carried forward. However, there has been more and more discussion of sources and equity in responsibility of reducing them. One recommendation from this section of the Framework was to establish a water quality certification program for farmers. The USDA and US EPA chose Minnesota to pilot such a program, and the voluntary Minnesota Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program will begin accepting applications later this year or early 2014.

Issue C: Contaminants of Emerging Concern

While the state continues to invest in research on CECs and fund the MDH program that is developing drinking water standards for CECs, there have been no substantial policy changes.

Issue D: Land, Air, and Water Connection

How land is developed and used has many direct effects on the quality of water that falls and runs off the surface. The Framework recommendation to require integrated land and water planning has been encouraged by the state legislature, but only as a voluntary measure.

Issue E: Ecological and Hydrological Integrity

This issue encompasses the hydrological cycle and habitat protection, and their interconnections. Progress has been made in aquatic invasive species management, in habitat protection through land purchases or easements, and in increasing awareness of the need to consider conservation drainage practices for managing tile drainage. For example, the Legislature has funded an Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and the DNR has increased its efforts at preventing the spread of existing invasives such as zebra mussels.

Issue F: Water – Energy Nexus

There has been increased dialogue and awareness of how water and energy are intertwined. The Metropolitan Council is considering a study to quantify the relationships for the Metro region, which is consistent with Framework recommendations.

Issue G: Water Pricing and Valuation

This area is one place where the action of the state is opposite to what was recommended. At the time the Framework passed, the Legislature had required the Metro to institute conservation pricing for municipal systems, and required the rest of the state to adopt it in a matter of years. Since then, however, the Legislature repealed the latter part.

Issue H: Public Water Infrastructure Needs

The State Revolving Funds for assisting municipalities with infrastructure cannot keep up with demand, and the gap grows larger with time. There has been no progress on designing a process for addressing this gap.

Issue I: Citizen Engagement and Education

No formal policy changes have occurred to improve water education and public engagement. However, the WRC recently held an all-day workshop for Minnesota legislators on water issues and policies in an effort to increase the understanding of our decision-makers.

Issue J: Governance and Institutions

The McKnight Foundation funded the WRC to complete a scoping study for what process might best be used to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s water policy. Both the Legislature and the Governor and Executive Branch would need to be engaged to make this a successful enterprise.

Overall, the Framework continues to be a living document and touchstone for guiding policy and discussion on sustainable water management for the state. Even after only three years, many of the recommendations have been adopted or discussed, and the awareness of the ten “Big Issues” is high.