Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Q&A: Preventing a Minnesota Water Crisis

May 13, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

We usually take for granted that the Land of 10,000 Lakes will have plenty of clean water available for drinking, boating, and fishing. In some pockets of the state, however, clean, abundant water has become scarce. One of the metro area’s largest lakes is drying up, aquatic life statewide suffers from agricultural runoff, and southwest Minnesota doesn’t have enough water to meet certain demands.

Several bills in legislature right now will determine whether or not we make progress in addressing these water concerns.

What more should all Minnesotans do to prevent a water sustainability crisis?

How can we engage more than just advocates and researchers to bring mainstream attention to declining water resources?

This is an all-day conversation. Trevor Russell, from the Friends of the Mississippi, joined us this morning for a Q&A on the latest from the capitol about protecting Minnesota’s water resources.


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Bill Moseley says:

    May 13, 2014 at 6:14 am

    Non-point source pollution from agriculture is a significant cause of water pollution in Minnesota (both ground and surface water).  In what ways might bills in the legislature address this problem?

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:04 am


      The 1972 Clean Water Act specifically exempted field agriculture from Clean Water Act regulations. The result is that while factories, wastewater treatment plants, and traditional “point sources” of pollution have largely been addressed, non-point pollution from ag is the largest source of pollution to Minnesota’s surface waters - and is largely free to accountability measures.

      Ag runoff is a diverse topic, but there are several bills this year (and a big one last year) that address the problem.

      2014: Forever Green: funding for UofM research on advanced cover crops/third crops/perennials
      2014: Legislative Water Commission: reconvening legislators in a forum for advancing challenging solutions
      2013: Clean Water Accountability Act: requiring the state to develop clean up plans that work, while prioritizing the most effective restoration and protection projects first.

  • Tom Brinkman says:

    May 13, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Bill Moseley’s comment is the overpoweringly correct one.  I quote Bill’s comment, “Non-point source pollution from agriculture is a significant cause of water pollution in Minnesota (both ground and surface water).  In what ways might bills in the legislature address this problem?”.  The key is ‘how do we come up with a win-win solution for individual landowners as well as for our overall population?’.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:12 am

      Tom, its fair to conclude that purely voluntary controls are insufficient to address agg runoff.

      We’ve seen a dramatic increase in nitrate to the Mississippi River in just the last 30 years (47% increase, measured at the Hastings Dam outlet of the metro area) - mostly from agriculture. Sediment pollution has increased ten-fold since early settlement. Groundwater contamination that impacts private and public drinking water supplies is becoming more common. This is a serious problem in need of our attention.

      While regulation will eventually be required to bring everyone up to speed, also need systems that reward operators that act early to move the marketplace and inspire others to act. One simple way we can do that is to transition from the corn and soybean crop rotations that leave fields barren 8 months a year. By mixing in diverse crop rotations and cover crops that keep living things growing in the field year round (even through winter months), we reduce pollution, erosion, and greatly improve soil health - which is key to the vitality of farm operations. Forever Green will help us advance the crop types and varieties that are profitable for farmers, have a market in Minnesota, and address excessive farm runoff efficiently. The trick, of course, is getting it to pass. I’ll give us an update on that shortly.

  • Bill Moseley says:

    May 13, 2014 at 8:13 am

    There was a great op-ed in this past Sunday’s New York Times ( on problems with pesticides and fertilizers that people use on their yards.  Could you comment on this issue in Minnesota as a source of non-point source water pollution? if you think about non-point source pollution overall, how big is the yard chemical problem relative to agricultural non-point source pollution?

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:23 am

      Great question. When we think of lawn chemicals, we generally think of two categories of pollutants:

      1. Fertilizers. This is a potentially potent source of excess nutrients to nearby surface waters, which can cause excessive algae growth and degrade water quality and habitat. No one likes a pea-green lake. Luckily, Minnesota’s Phosphorus Lawn Fertilizer Law restricted phosphorus fertilizer use on lawns and turf in 2004 in the seven county Twin Cities metro area and in Minnesota’s other 80 counties in 2005. Its still an issue - but not so large anymore. But remember, ALWAYS sweep up excess fertilizers from driveways, sidewalks, and other surfaces prone to runoff. More info on the law is available here:

      2. Pesticides. I am not a pesticide expert, but I image we’ll be joined by folks who are soon. While we don’t have any river or lake impairments in our state tied directly to urban pesticide application (that I’m aware of…) there is some startling research on pesticide impacts on bees and other pollinators.

      • Trevor Russell says:

        May 13, 2014 at 8:34 am

        Also - is terms of share of pollution:

        Nitrate/Nitrogen: 71% field agriculture. 1% urban runoff. Yikes. This does vary based on where you are in the state, but that is the overall ratio.

        Phosphorus: ~30% field agriculture. 4.5% urban runoff. This is far more varied, due to the complexity of sources and the fact that some P is dissolved and some is particulate, meaning different sources of transport and different impacts on water resources. Its far too early in the day to get into that though!

      • Win Bowron says:

        May 13, 2014 at 8:42 am

        Trevor & Bill,

        Great points about fertilizers/pesticides.  Both are vastly overused/abused as part of Modern-America “lawncare”.  Also, since the subject of water-scarcity is in play here, why are we allowing folks to constantly water their lawns?  Automatic sprinkling systems have really ramped up the use of water and consequential draining of our precious aquifers/rivers, and it just drives me crazy to see how many are in use on a regular basis, regardless of conditions.  (We’ve all seen those sprinklers going during a driving rain, right?)  The argument could easily be made that grass lawns are unsustainable in our region/climate in any case, but to see the level of noxious chemistry and water-waste that goes into them makes the whole business that much worse.  It’s time to clamp down on both through legislation and/or taxation.    Placing a highter tax on water use might just be the most effective way to curb the wanton waste that we currently experience.

  • cathy says:

    May 13, 2014 at 8:30 am

    SW Minnesota is actually running out of water, not just clean water. Our aquifer is down to dangerous levels. We (at Worthington)  are buying water from an outside source that supplies 19% of our water. Now, that source is in jeopardy. The Lewis & Clark water system is our only sure source. The MN Legislature does not take our needs seriously. They will not provide the money needed to get the pipeline to us. If we do not start on the pipeline (Lewis & Clark) soon, we will be out of water before anything is done.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:41 am

      Cathy, I believe the Lewis & Clark system is under consideration for funding this year. Water supply is running scarce across the state. This is not an issue that can be ignored: we are mostly made of water and when it runs out…so do we. Plus, without enough water, we can’t have enough beer. And that is even worse! All kidding aside, the Freshwater Society offers us all a glimpse of our water quantity challenges here:

      Our days of considering ourselves a “water rich state” are coming to a close. One issue to be considered in your area: water use. We can back-fill the system through Lewis & Clark, but declining aquifers from overuse will still be a problem. How to we advance conservation - even limits on irrigation - in areas with rapidly declining groundwater? Large scale irrigation pumping has skyrocketed, often with little to no oversight - in many areas with serious supply concerns.

      • cathy says:

        May 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

        SW MN does not use irrigation pumping for farming. Most fields are tiled and water is sent to ditches and ends up in the Mississippi.  Also, Worthington has had a ban on lawn watering for years, now. So far, the Legislature has denied us the funding we need in favor of nature trails and sculpture gardens. It is very upsetting to us.

        • Trevor Russell says:

          May 13, 2014 at 9:10 am

          Thanks Cathy - you are right. Irrigation has been a driver elsewhere (

          The Lewis and Clark water project draws water from the Missouri River aquifer in South Dakota…but not fully into MN where its needed. To get the water another 50 miles to Worthington would cost $70 million. I believe that is… 7% of a Vikings stadium. Priorities?

          However, the question remains: who pays? Congress cut of money. Local communities haven’t been willing to fund the project themselves (if they even could - that’s a big ticket). But that amount alone would nearly clean out the Clean Water Fund with a single project. Time is running out. Hopefully, the legislature will make a decision on the state’s contribution soon. How much is Worthington willing to share the cost burden? What should be the local share? I don’t have an answer, but these questions we need to be asked and answered all across the state….and soon.

  • Jim W says:

    May 13, 2014 at 8:34 am

    I was the Mayor of a small city for 10 years and had to deal with water usage. During the winter months we would use 150,000 gallons per day while in the summer that would jump to 850,000 gallons/day as people would work to keep their lawns green no matter how hot or dry it might be. We could make a major dent in water usage by re-thinking the need for green lawns.

  • Jim W says:

    May 13, 2014 at 8:43 am

    We have to do more than pipe water from other sources, we need to reduce the amount of water we use. Everyone complains when the price of water in their community increases, but raising the price is the simplest means of getting people to conserve.

    We are approaching the time when people should start paying for water pulled from aquifers with their own wells, or from rivers and streams.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:50 am

      Water pricing varies dramatically - even across the metro. Minneapolis: ~$5.00 for 10,000 gallons. White Bear Lake (running out of water in a hurry): ~$1.00 for 10,000 gallons. Minnesota must move from a “groundwater is free” model to pricing water in a way that values its scarcity and its importance to life, commerce, and economic vitality. That means state intervention - which many communities reject even as water runs dry.

      BTW: where does your water com from? Check it out through the met Council (in the metro area only):

  • Kathy Brown says:

    May 13, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I am more than concerned about the efforts to mine in Northern MN by Polymet. The results of this short term, low job creating, disastrous experiment will be toxic chemicals leaching into all of our ground water and into our lakes streams and rivers which most certainly includes the Mississippi and Lake Superior. Polymet’s own numbers show that it will take at least 500 years of treatment. And then, they don’t know that it will ever return to its present quality.  Glencor Xstrata, a worldwide mining company is waiting in the wings to take over Polymet once permits have been secured. That company is known for pouring chemicals directly into rivers and other sources of water in Africa as well as Peru and other countries.  Once our water is contaminated, it is done and it is gone. Our beautiful wilderness will be gone forever.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 8:54 am

      Oh boy! I am going to plead the 5th on this one, since my organization (Friends of the Mississippi River - doesn’t work on mining issues directly. But you make some very compelling arguments! How many years of pollution treatment (mostly likely on the public’s dime - unless anyone can tell me of a corporation that’s existed for 500 years and is still paying its debts…) for 20 years of employment for a few hundred people? Is that the best deal we can get?

      • Liane Gale says:

        May 13, 2014 at 9:19 am

        The Polymet and the Twin Metals sulfide mines have to be stopped. Same with the pipeline expansions, same with the increased rail transport of oil across the state. These are all threatening the water here in the state. How can you, as a friend of the water, narrowly concentrate on the Mississippi, without having a clear stance on these proposals, that have the potential of contaminating the boundary water, the St. Louis river, Lake Superior and more. Why the statement: Is that the best deal we can get? This is not about a deal with the DFL, this is about the future of Minnesota! As you should know, clean air and clean water are the basis of all life. If you, as a “water friend” do not have a clear stand against these projects, I would then deduct that “water” for you is just a job or a political game.

        • Kathy Brown says:

          May 13, 2014 at 4:17 pm

          Thank you Liane, for at least recognizing how important this is. The best deal we can get?  This “mining issue” as Trevor states does have the potential of devastation of the entire Mississippi River.  Glencor Xstrata, in Africa, has poured acid directly into rivers and streams. In Peru they are being sued for their careless use of resources.  The Mississippi starts in Northern MN and there are many rivers and streams that run into it and so anything that is in those waters will go into the Mississippi. There are going to be very few jobs from the mining. And besides that, they haven’t even come up with information as to the health effects on human beings.  If the water and land are contaminated, the vegetation will be dying and there will be no food for any of the wildlife…..on and on and on….the Mississippi WILL be destroyed and along with that, everything it touches all the way down to the Gulf… that big enough for you to pay attention to?

        • Kathy Brown says:

          May 13, 2014 at 4:24 pm

          A foreign corporation, PolyMet Mining, Inc., is proposing to develop the first sulfide mine in Minnesota. The PolyMet mine would be an open pit copper and nickel mine north of Hoyt Lakes in the Superior National Forest. It is likely to be the first of many sulfide mining proposals in northern Minnesota. Other companies are exploring mineral deposits north of Lake Mille Lacs to the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely.
          Impacts to Communities & Wildlife
          Unlike iron mines, sulfide mines release sulfuric acid when water comes into contact with tailings and other mine wastes. In places where this type of mining is common, acid mine drainage has a long and tragic history of contaminating rivers, lakes, and groundwater. The PolyMet mine regulations will set a precedent that could govern sulfide mines in Minnesota for years to come. EPA is forcing PolyMet to supplement its environmental analysis, but current plans call for the following:

          Three open pits of 800 acres producing an estimated 394 million tons of waste rock and ore, all generating acid

          Transport of the ore to a mill located at the former LTV Steel Mining Company taconite processing plant.

          Millions of tons of mine tailings discharged in the form of a toxic, semi-solid slurry into the existing LTV tailings reservoir, which is unlined and contains wetlands and ponds.

          Destruction of approximately 1,000 acres of wetlands, indirect impacts upon 500 acres of wetlands

          Mining Tailings and Clean Water Don’t Mix
          River Otter
          The PolyMet mine is an example of why mine waste should not be discharged into water bodies. The existing taconite tailings, which were dumped onto the wetlands and streams within the tailings impoundment, are already leaking through numerous surface seeps and possibly groundwater flow. These point sources have contributed to elevated levels of pollutants in the Lake Superior watershed.

          There is no single solution to the problems posed by sulfide mining, but one obvious step is to stop mines from dumping their toxic wastes into lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Aquatic ecosystems are among our most valuable community and wildlife resources, but they are also natural conduits that can transport pollution for miles if a mining waste impoundment is improperly built, fails, or deteriorates with age.

          We Can Close the Mining Loopholes
          As a nation, we decided that industries should not be able to profit from polluting the waters that sustain America’s communities, fish, and wildlife. Help us close the two loopholes in the Clean Water Act that encourage irresponsible mining practices and irresponsible mines such as the PolyMet mine in Minnesota.

  • Trevor Russell says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Back to legislative investments on ag pollution reduction:

    Priority 1: Forever Green Funding. We must have more crop diversity on the landscape to clean up our water and for better stewardship of the land. This means research into cover crops and perennial crops that will work in Minnesota’s climate and are profitable for farmers to grow. The U has made a good start with its Forever Green Initiative - but that program needs increased funding to be successful.

    2014 Senate Omnibus Finance Bill: $1.15 million for Forever Green.
    2014 House Omnibus Finance Bill: $0.00 for Forever Green.

    House and Senate conferees are negotiating a compromise this week. Now…may be a good time to get involved if you are about this issue. For more info:

  • Peggy says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:15 am


    Great questions coming in today.  Could you share your thoughts on how communities and individuals play a role in protecting, and improving, local waters?  It seems to me that the problems we face will require broad participation.  Government will play a big role through regulation, but say a bit about how you, me and the neighbors figure into keeping enough water healthy enough to sustain a healthy system.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 9:23 am

      Hi Peggy - great question. The vast majority of our state’s land is privately owned - and thus the choices that we make as individuals and communities are critical to our success. Taking action at home, in the yard, and in the neighborhood matters. Car washing. Water conservation. Managing pharmaceuticals. Yard care. Pet waste. These are the things that every single person here can do today to make a difference. And once you do, your friends and neighbors see that and embrace it and we start to make the movement move. I direct folks to the State of the River Report’s Stewardship Guide as a great place to start:

      Another great idea: Master Watershed Stewards. The new Master Water Stewards program will certify and support community leaders to install pollution prevention projects that educate community members, reduce pollutants from urban runoff, and allow more water to soak into the ground before running into storm sewer systems. This recharges groundwater and prevents pollution. Win-win. Find out more here:

  • NAME says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Let’s do all we can to be water stewards - local to global

    But , what about the Great Lakes as a viable source?

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 9:31 am

      Superior is, well, big. Breaking news there, huh? So its tempting. But moving water from where it is to where it is not is amazingly expensive. Its also very energy intensive - which exacerbates climate and pollution issues on a global scale. Our hope is that with water (much like energy) we can secure HUGE savings simply through conservation and smart planning.

      This Mississippi River will need to be a big part of our drinking water supply moving forward, though. Right now, the metro draws about 2% of the river flow for drinking water, much of which is returned back to the river through wastewater treatment systems. We’ll nee to look at dual-use systems throughout the metro - where cities rely on the river for primary use, while keeping existing wells as backups in case surface waters run low in the driest years. This allows groundwater levels to recharge while offering communities the economic security to grow and thrive without the issues faced by folks in Mountain Lake and Worthington - who are not so lucky.

      Check out this commentary on dual use systems and White Bear Lake water levels from the Pioneer Press:

  • Nina Preheim says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I am a fifth grade teacher.  What more can elementary schools do to help raise awareness about our declining water resources in Minnesota?  I am looking for very specific suggestions that tie into the Minnesota State standards in science learning.

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 9:39 am

      Hi Nina. First: thank you for being a teacher. Teachers matter - and we’re grateful for what you do.

      Not being a teacher myself, I am not familiar with state standards in science learning, so I am probably ill-equipped to answer this. I think there are tools and resources to help schools embrace water conservation, and in-class curriculum tools available as well - but I am not very familiar with them.

      One place we all need to look: the South West and California. Those folks have been dealing with these same issues for years and are much further along on public and classroom education. Time for a little interstate resource sharing. We can learn from them about water, they can learn from us about being above average….smile

  • NAME says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:36 am

    I see the time is up for this talk, but I would just like to add that I used to live in an apartment complex on East River Rd. in Fridley that kept sprinklers on from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., continuously. Sprinklers ran from May to October. Who regulates buildings like that? If one complex is doing it, we can bet that many more apartment complexes, golf courses, and all businesses preoccupied with lawn aesthetics are also doing it. Why can’t state agencies bust these guys for unscrupulous water use? What agency could residents turn to to get help reporting the issue?

    • Trevor Russell says:

      May 13, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Municipal water use is regulated locally. The state can’t really intervene. Fridley has some great local leaders, and I think this issue can be addressed effectively. The Fridley Environmental Commission is a great place to start.

  • Trevor Russell says:

    May 13, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Time to sign off. Thanks everyone for a great conversation!

  • Ruth Jones says:

    May 13, 2014 at 10:32 am

    We can all conserve water by not flushing the toilet as often, just when it’s obvious that we should, also do not let the water from the faucet in the kitchen or bathroom(s) or laundry room in the house or outside run without close attention.  Use just the very minimum which is necessary.  Do not irrigate the lawn.  The garden needs watering when it’s dry but think of creative ways you can use waste water from the house on the garden.

  • Gordon B. Abel says:

    May 13, 2014 at 11:00 am

    1) Conservation obviously, in homes with with modified toilets that don’t use gallons of water to flush away ounces of urine, recycling water for mundane purdooses like anything other than drinking or cooking. Start a water infrastructure trust fund for maintenence, upgrading, and repair of water treatment and distribution systems. Capture and stroe storm water runoff in urban areas for future treatment and use. Capture agricultural runoff for future treatment and use, possibley to reuse for crop irrigation as it already contains some of the chemicals used for growing crops. These are just some off-the-cuff notions…

  • Charles Zea says:

    May 13, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    I am concerned about who owns the water.  It would not be a good thing if some corporation got control of the water   Water is a common, it is not for sale.  The water belongs to the PEOPLE and it is the responsibility of our government to make sure that our water rights are not sold off.

  • Mike Downing says:

    May 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    There are few topics where I agree with MN2020 and it’s audience. This is one of them.

    We are on the verge of a groundwater crisis in MN; we are depleting our groundwater through overuse of municipal wells. 50 years ago, 70% of the Twin Cities drinking water came from surface water, i.e. Mississippi River. Today, only 35% of the Twin Cities drinking water comes from surface water. We must revert back to surface water or we truly will deplete the prairie du chien aquifer.

    White Bear Lake is the “canary in the coal mine”!

    Watch the following documentary on YouTube:  “Where is the Water in White Bear Lake?”