Cover crops, compacts and impacts at the 2019 Minnesota Water Resources Conference

The Minnesota Water Resources Conference of 2019 opened and closed with plenary speakers extolling the wide-reaching benefits of Minnesota water research across the state, country and globe. The conference was held October 15-16 at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

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University President Joan Gable illustrated the University's commitment to water research with a by-the-numbers tally of water-related researchers, projects and courses.

Newly-installed University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel was the first speaker to address the over 900 conference attendees.  She offered a by the numbers account of the breath of water research done at the university: 274 researchers in over 40 departments and 195 water-based courses offered demonstrate the U’s commitment to water research and management. Research at the University is inspired by issues peculiar to Minnesota, but impacts the world, said Gabel, engaging near and far, exporting the good work that is the cornerstone of what the university represents.

Following Gabel’s remarks, Water Resources Center director Jeff Peterson announced the winners of the Dave Ford award, given annually to individuals with an extended history of contributing to the betterment of water resources in Minnesota. The award was shared this year by Al Kean, retired engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Board of Water and Soil Resources, and Bruce Montgomery, recently retired from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Montgomery is known for his ability to share knowledge in a clear and engaging manner, and a strong advocate of a science-based approach to problem solving. He played a key role in developing several programs including the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan and the Manure Testing Laboratory Certification Program. Kean was recognized for numerous water protection projects and leadership on the Minnesota Drainage Work Group and the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Red River Flood Damage Reduction Work Group. Both men were applauded for their mentorship and inspiration of the men and women with whom they worked throughout the years.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum joined the conference via a pre-recorded video, thanking all in attendance for their efforts to protect water, and praised the conference for delivering on the promise of getting research out of the lab and into the hands of water professionals. McCollum touted her role in helping pass a 35% increase over current levels of government funding for USGS programs, which in part fund each state’s water centers. “Federal research funding should be based on sound science, not politics,” stated McCollum.

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Peter Annan, author of the Great Lakes Water Wars and pictured here with WRC Associate Director Joel Larson (left) and WRC Director Jeff Peterson (right) told the audience about water diversion plans of the past, cautionary tales that helped create the Great Lakes Compact.

Peter Annan, author of The Great Lake Water Wars, was Tuesday’s luncheon speaker. Annan postulated that water will replace oil as the most important global resource, which will create tension in water-rich areas such as the Great Lakes. Right now, 1% of the earth’s water is considered accessible and drinkable; by 2025, 2/3 of the global population will be experiencing some sort of water stress.

Water diversion proponents have long eyed the great lakes as a solution to water shortages in other parts of the us and the world. In the 1990’s Nova Group proposed a plan to ship Great Lakes water to customers in Asia. While the plan would have had little to no effect on lake water levels, local politicians and environmental groups were concerned about setting future precedents creating access to the water to the highest bidder. Officials in the US and Canada created new policies protecting the lakes, leading to the Great Lakes Compact. The compact is considered a global model for water management. The compact bans water diversions, with limited exceptions for local communities, who must agree to return the water after use with no adverse impacts on the water or environment. “The compact is a success story,” said Annin, “But we must be vigilant, keeping eyes open to upcoming challenges in Great Lakes water management.”

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Don Wyse and Nick Jordan outline the soil and water benefits of keeping the landscape green year round.

Wednesday morning’s plenary offered a primer on the benefits of cover crops and economic advantages to farmers. Don Wyse, CFANS professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, and self-described “farm kid” walked his listeners through years of University plant research and development. The traditional 20th century two crop system of corn and soybeans was highly productive but provided no protection for soil or water, which cycled nutrients into surface waters and rivers eroding soil and carrying nutrients all the way to the Gulf.

He highlighted the new emphasis on winter cropping systems, which keeps soil in place and protects water quality, while producing new crops that bring additional income to the farmer.

Flooding is common in spring and fall when the ground is bare. The challenge is to have green ground year round, which will keep soil in place and nutrients where they belong, in soil and plants. Cover crops with their own economic value are in development, such as wheatgrass (Kernza), sunflowers, winter crops like Camelina and winter barley and native woody crops such as hazelnuts and elderberry. These crops are disease resistant, high in protein and provide quality grazing for cattle.

Nick Jordan, professor in CFANS department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, picked up the narrative from there, talking about the “chicken and egg” challenge. Commercialization of cover crops requires profitable end use markets and a large producer group. Producers need to know there is a market for the new cover crop and buyers need to know that there will be enough product to meet demand.

Moving forward, new crop partnerships between the urban and rural communities will depend on farmers stepping up to protect the land and supply cities with food, and the urban centers must recognize their dependence on the productivity of farms.

There is no downside to cover crop development and deployment says Jordan. “Regardless of the future of climate change, climate mitigation by reducing greenhouse gases from cropland, storing carbon in root systems and meeting food needs within a more compact footprint is a win-win.”

Minnesota Public Radio environmental reporter Kristi Marohn, bookended the conference with her talk, Telling Stories about Water.

In a room filled with scientists, engineers and other water professionals, Marohn asked for their help in getting their water work stories told. “Translating scientific data into accessible stories that make listeners care is a challenge,” and scientists need to be open to making complex research simpler and formatted into a news story, rather than a professional journal article. People tune out when they are overwhelmed so include actions that your listeners can take to make a difference. The “Water Main” from American Public Media  provides such an accessible platform for disseminating water science stories to the general public. Marohn is always looking for what makes a great story, like  a new angle, or connection to a larger issue, the effect on humans and health and livelihood. In short, an emotional connection.

In between plenary sessions, the conference offered 90 concurrent sessions spanning stormwater management, the invasion of the spiny water flea, and the clean water infrastructure of Allianz Field. Special sessions included chloride trends in Minnesota waters and wetlands health.

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Water Resources Center affiliated researchers were available to answer questions about their projects between conference sessions.