Pollution, policy and politics on tap at Minnesota Water Conference

The policy and economics of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, management of surface and groundwater, and the political polarization of science were on the topic menu at the 2013 Minnesota Water Conference, held October 15 and 16, at the St. Paul RiverCentre. The conference opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford Award. Civil Engineering Professor Emeritus Heinz Stefan, a former Dave Ford Award winner, presented this year’s award to Professor John Gulliver (WRS faculty, CE). The award recognizes individuals whose lifetime accomplishments contribute to improving Minnesota's water quality. Stefan enumerated Gulliver’s many professional achievements in studying surface gas transfer early in his career, up to his current role in investigating aeration on turbine blades and in turbine draft tubes to raise dissolved oxygen levels downstream from hydropower stations. Recently, Gulliver and his students developed urban stormwater best management practices that remove nutrients, chemicals, and sediments from urban stormwater runoff. Stefan also noted Gulliver’s significant role as mentor in the lives of his students, “He has had an impact on the development of many engineering students, and has advised over 70 graduate students to the completion of their degrees. Some of them are here with us today.”

Jim Stark presented Tuesday’s plenary talk, “Water Sustainability in Minnesota: Today’s Decisions Affect Your Grandchildren,” addressing the projected decline in aquifers of as much as 40 feet, which is a problem throughout the state, not just the metro areas. Also of concern is well contamination, arsenic, a naturally occurring contaminate, and nitrate, a human induced contaminate. Future water sustainability will require thoughtful management of surface and ground waters in tandem. And the conversation needs to incorporate economics, politics, and as well as science. Water needs to be managed as a common good, and to do that says Stark, “We need to educate people outside of this room.” And Stark pointed out, Minnesota needs an action plan, which it has in the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.

Tuesday’s luncheon talk “Minnesota Draft Nutrient Reduction Strategy” was presented by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Assistant Commissioner Rebecca Flood. The strategy is intended to help reduce the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico by two-thirds. Flood defined hypoxia as depletion of oxygen within a water body brought on by excessive algal growth, caused by an overabundance of nutrients. Oxygen depletion imperils aquatic life and water quality. Currently, the zone is 15,000 square kilometers. All the states in the Upper Mississippi Watershed have been charged with reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphates, key contributors to hypoxia, discharged into the Mississippi River. Minnesota will tackle the goal by targeting non-point nutrient sources including cropland and erosion, as well as point sources. The MPCA plan provides for measureable milestones along the way to reach the goal of a 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous in the Mississippi by 2045. Monitoring programs already in place will measure progress. Minnesota will reap benefits from tackling the Gulf hypoxia issue by making its own water cleaner in the process. Read more about the MPCA nutrient reduction plan.

The Gulf hypoxia theme continued into the second day of the conference when Cathy Kling, professor of Economics at Iowa State University, presented “Agricultural Conservation Practices and Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia: A Model to Assess Costs and Trade-offs.” Kling provided an economic view of the problem of hypoxia in the Gulf, citing costs and tradeoffs involved in potential solutions to lessen the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous traveling down the Mississippi from the Upper Mississippi Watershed (UMWS). Kling described the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) as an assessment of what society is getting for money spent on conservation techniques. CEAP created a model of the entire UMWS landscape, exploring what would happen if a variety of conservation combinations were employed, finding the least costly combination of conservation practices and using evolutionary algorithms to create different configurations in search of the lowest cost, effective program.

The outcome clearly showed that focused efforts, rather than sweeping implementation, worked the best in the model, at a cost of eight dollars per acre, or eight billion dollars annually. Kling also pointed out that these efforts would help the Gulf, but would not necessarily address water quality problems upstream in a given state.

Shawn Otto, local science advocate and author of Fool Me Twice, Fighting the Assault on Science in America was Wednesday’s luncheon speaker. The United States owes its riches to a respect for science as the foundation for research, knowledge and innovation. In recent times however, science has slipped into the murky waters of belief and opinion. Otto calls this “science denialism” and both political parties harbor their own faulty tenets. People left of center hold to beliefs that it fears could damage health and the environment, such as the unfounded claims that cell phones cause brain cancer and vaccines cause autism. The Right tends to dismiss global warming concerns as bogus and merely the means to create more burdensome regulations, and questions the theory of Evolution presented as scientific fact. Otto believes the Republican version of denialism is more damaging, as it attacks science itself, when scientific facts appear to disagree with party ideology. In this climate, Otto worries that citizens cannot be well-informed enough to make good decisions, as their decisions are more and more driven not by knowledge, but rather by whoever is most convincing. “When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy breaks down,” says Otto. If the United States hopes to preserve democracy for future generations, we need “ . . .the common denominator (of) knowledge that can bring opposing sides together.”

Conference co-chair and WRC co-director Deb Swackhamer indicated that she had many positive comments about the quality of speakers and balance of topics. “Each plenary speaker challenged us to think about ‘wicked’ topics, but each also offered a solution to the problem.”

Cathy Kling and Deb SwackhamerCathy Kling, professor of Economics at Iowa State University, pictured
here with WRC co-director Deb Swackhamer, was Wednesday