Connecting the dots: Insights from the Minnesota Water Resources Conference

by Chris O’Brien, communications coordinator

As a headwaters state with 11,842 lakes, it should come as no surprise that Minnesota is a leader in water research, policy and planning. These disciplines were on display Oct. 17-18 at the Minnesota Water Resources Conference, an annual event organized by the University of Minnesota that drew about 780 water professionals, students and educators to the Saint Paul RiverCentre.

Attendees immersed themselves in water issues and academia throughout the course of four keynote presentations and 88 smaller breakout sessions. Researchers brought forth a dizzying array of topics ranging from citizen engagement to wetland hydrology, the latter presented by Jennifer Gruetzman, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist who sits on our Citizen Advisory Commission. With so much information to take in, it’s helpful to look for common themes and connections. Here are three insights gleaned from this year’s conference.

Water is personal

While solutions to complex water issues may require a healthy dose of engineering and scientific study, it’s important to remember that people view and experience water in highly personal ways. Some think of it primarily as a resource to be allocated; others view it as something to be protected and even cared for. According to Ethan Neerdaels, executive director of the Dakota Language Society, “Water is a relative.”

Neerdaels shared a message of tradition and responsibility at the conference while serving three varieties of locally sourced Mni (Dakota for water) at the Water Bar, a Minneapolis-based arts and ecology organization. This sentiment was echoed by keynote speaker Nancy Schuldt, water projects coordinator for the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She discussed the intersection of science and traditional values in navigating politically charged water issues like mining and sulfate standards for wild rice.

Water Bar
Water Bar and Public Studio collaborated with the Dakota Language Society and Healing Place Collaborative to serve locally sourced water, along with an indigenous perspective.
Personal connections to water need not divide us; they can also be harnessed to empower communities through conservation projects. Mae Davenport, director of the U of M’s Center for Changing Landscapes, talked about the shift from an enticement model (offering monetary rewards for conservation) to an empowerment model, which assumes people value clean water and are willing to help voluntarily. “We cannot buy our way out of water quality problems in Minnesota,” said Davenport. She noted that when citizens are motivated by a conservation ethic, they are more likely to put in a sustained effort over time.

Communication matters

Are most Minnesotans aware of water issues in our state? Not yet, according to Amy Skoczlas Cole, managing director of The Water Main at American Public Media. During her presentation, “Communicating Science for Action,” Skoczlas Cole cited poll results that found only 15 percent of Minnesotans believe we have water problems here in Minnesota. She suggested the key to increasing public awareness and understanding is through narrative storytelling that emphasizes potential solutions – not just a steady stream of bad news.

The impact of communication on water outcomes is particularly great when it comes to the topic of agricultural runoff. Nearly half the research topics presented at the conference had an agricultural component, including a special session on the potential benefits and challenges of getting more perennial crops on the Minnesota landscape. Still, conservation practices on agricultural lands remain largely voluntary, which is why open communication that builds trust is so important in farm country.

Here in the Twin Cities metro, communication between residents and conservation professionals can pave the way for successful water-enhancing projects. Metro Blooms gave a conference presentation on their Blooming Alleys for Clean Water program, which has installed rain gardens, permeable pavement systems and native plantings in 22 alleys, capturing an estimated 4 million gallons of runoff and 4,000 pounds of sediment annually. In order to get neighborhood buy-in for the projects, Metro Blooms designated “alley captains” who helped spread the word through block parties and social gatherings.

Adaptation is essential

To a large extent, the Water Resources Conference is about what’s next. And with a changing climate and advances in technology, the field of water resource management could well be heading into uncharted territory. In terms of climate, we’re already seeing the effects of heavier rains, warmer winters and longer growing seasons in Minnesota. In order to adapt, communities and watershed districts will need to build resilient infrastructure and plan for environmental hazards like flooding and invasive species spread. Conference presenter Leslie Yetka from the Freshwater Society recently organized a series of multi-agency resiliency workshops in the Twin Cities area to help cities incorporate good science into their comprehensive plans.

Of course, what constitutes good science is a moving target. For example, traditional strategies to limit runoff can only take us so far in protecting water quality, and multiple conference presenters delved into the challenges of internal nutrient loading. To further complicate matters, some ponds and wetlands designed to capture excess phosphorous may actually be concentrating it and then feeding connected waterbodies an unhealthy diet of nutrient-rich water that causes algal blooms. Findings such as these emphasize the need for consistent water quality monitoring over time and a willingness to fine-tune best management practices along the way.

New research to identify the sources of pollutants and pathogens like E. coli is also causing us to re-examine the cumulative impacts of nearly everything that happens within a watershed– from excessive lawn watering to routine road construction.

And when it comes time to undertake major projects, we may no longer have months of frozen ground to run construction equipment through low-lying terrain. Rice Creek Watershed District recounted a challenging wetland restoration at Hanson Park in New Brighton last winter, which saw 75 days with temperatures above freezing. Contractors dumped truckloads of wood chips to keep the ground from thawing so they could access the site without getting stuck in the mud. Eventually, they had to drive over composite matting placed on top of the exposed soil, an expensive and tedious process. Their conclusion? “Mother Nature always wins.”

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