The Minnesota Water Conference offers up a primer on invasive species, effects of climate change, and agricultural impacts on clean water

October 14th 2014 heralded a new tech-savvy day for the annual Minnesota Water Resources Conference, with attendees encouraged to make use of a mobile guidebook app to plan their days, find sessions of interest as well as tweeting out news about the conference as it happened. Exhibitors made their first appearance at the conference, adding a trade show element to the breaks throughout the day.

Faye Sleeper, Stacey Sigurdson, Renja Sirgurdson, and Deb SwackhamerStacey Sigurdson (second from left) accepted the Dave Ford Award on
behalf of her late husband Roland. Pictured with Sigurdson
are Faye Sleeper, Roland's mother, Renja Sigurdson and Deb

In the first plenary session, Janet Keough of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Mid-continent Division, presented an overview of research within the EPA. In its mission statement the EPA states its purpose is to protect human health and the environment. Keough identified the biggest environmental issues of the day as climate change and agricultural pollution, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. She outlined some of the research challenges, such as assessment of chemical toxicity with limited data, as it is not possible to test for all potential chemicals in the water. EPA researchers employ ecotoxicology, the study of the effect of chemicals on a variety of ecosystems, and also foresee future possible environmental degradation resulting from exposure to chemicals of emerging concern. Prediction is important is identifying health risks to humans and the environment.Tuesday's session opened with the presentation of the Dave Ford award, named for an esteemed DNR hydrologist, and this year, presented to another DNR employee who left this life too soon, but also left an indelible mark on the environmental landscape. Roland Sigurdson, who passed away April 30th of this year, was given the award posthumously by the conference planning committee. Faye Sleeper and Jenifer Wical presented the award and Wical quoted retired Extension educator and previous Dave Ford award winner Barbara Liukkonen, who described Roland as the "best environmental educator that I ever knew because he could help people – kids AND adults – see how they fit in with the natural world and why the natural world was important to every one of us. He could take gross stuff . . . and help even the most squeamish people get interested and learn about fish and fish guts. He never teased or criticized anyone who was afraid or squeamish; he just taught on, and sooner or later, he hooked even the most reluctant, particularly kids" Wical, who supervised Roland for 14 years at the DNR, described Roland as a "...friend, confidant, specialist, adviser, teacher, and discoverer and was always reliable, steady, humorous, and skilled. He was recognized nationally as an urban and community fisheries program expert . . .the Governor's fishing opener will never be the same." Stacey Sigurdson accepted the award on Roland's behalf and exhorted the assembly to honor Roland and "get outside."

Tuesday's Luncheon speaker was Paul Douglas who spoke on climate impacts on water resources. In the late 1990's, Douglas, a twin cities meteorologist and software expert, was designing an app to deliver individual forecasts, when he noticed a trend. Research by Douglas revealed that Minnesota's average temperature has warmed by three degrees since the 1830's. In answer to those who think that might be a good thing, Douglas queried: "How healthy did you feel the last time you were three degrees warmer?" Weather events were becoming more extreme, causing "weather whiplash," such as long wet periods followed by periods of drought. He also noted that three inch downpours have doubled since 1964. Another symptom of climate change was last winter's polar vortex, which camped out over Minnesota for 90 days last winter.
So why do so many people deny climate change, or the possible negative outcomes? Follow the money. Deniers, Douglas said, want to continue to harvest carbon from the earth, and so began a campaign of disinformation. He believes we need to shrink the denier community through informed science, and by getting the word out that sustainable, cleaner technologies will be good for the economy. Innovation will light the path to reinvention.

Wednesday's plenary speaker was Peter Sorenson, Professor, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, speaking about his research on invasive carp. All carp in Minnesota are non-native, with the common carp originating in Germany and the Asian carp from that continent. He told the history of carp in Minnesota, of the recent European immigrants in the 1880's missing the carp from their diets, petitioning the U.S. government to import the fish from Germany, which it eventually did. Carp are extremely fertile, and have no natural predators in adulthood as they grow larger than surrounding fish. Carp have turned lake ecosystems upside down, destroying native fish habitat by uprooting plants as they feed, and their waste adding excessive nutrients to the water, creating algae.

The US government made the same mistake 80 years later, bringing Asian carp to the US to battle non-native aquatic plants, again with a strong push from citizens. Unfortunately, the carp ate everything, leaving little for native fish.

So with Asian carp swimming up the Mississippi, Sorenson suggests several things; stop making mistakes with alien species, use the lock and dam systems to keep them out in the short term, and use that time to let science catch up with the problem and offer lasting solutions.

Luncheon speaker Craig Cox, Senior Vice President of the Environmental Working Group, presented Farming and Clean Water: Still Such a Long way to Go. Cox focused on what he called "vulnerable land," acres in production 3-4 months out of a year, lying dormant the rest of the year, losing soil and chemicals through runoff, exacerbated by the widespread use of drainage tile which efficiently funnels sediment and pollutants into our waterways.

Feasible solutions exist says Cox, so why are they not widely implemented? He pointed to weaknesses in the current volunteer program:

    • Volunteers for the program tend to not be the people doing the most damage.
    • Good work on individual farms doesn't add up to clean water at the watershed scale.
    • Poor targeting of landscape
    • Durability; do improvements on the landscape last? What happens when land is sold?

Cox stated that basic standards of care need to be enforced, focusing on farming practices that are damaging and easy to avoid. For example, prevent ephemeral gullies, which are a pipeline for phosphorous and other pollutants, add grassy buffers as a setback to fields. Also, manure application on frozen fields needs to stop, and bovine access to streams contributes to shoreland erosion. Cox stated that the content of the list of basic standards can be argued about, but a list is essential to action.

Conference planning committee co-chair Faye Sleeper was pleased with the conference presentations and the impact of social media features. "This year if felt as though there was a heightened energy at the conference, probably resulting from some of the new features as well as the high quality of the breakout sessions. We anticipate keeping many of the new features next year!"