Minnesota Water Summit Produces Ideas

Michele Wallace writes some ideas about how farmers can improve water quality during a Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, water summit in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Michele Wallace writes some ideas about how farmers can improve water quality during a Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, water summit in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Balancing water is tough.

Still, Gov. Mark Dayton brought together more than 800 Minnesotans to do that on Saturday, looking at ways to clean up the state’s water while still allowing farmers and others to conduct profitable business. Potential solutions coming from the day-long meeting in a downtown St. Paul hotel will be compiled in coming days, then Dayton said he will decide what to do from there.

He already decided to set aside an April week to spotlight clean water needs to Minnesotans.

“If citizens aren’t engaged, the changes are going to happen more slowly, if at all,” he said.

He also pledged to deliver the message this summer as he plans to visit all 87 counties in 86 days.

“Safe, clean drinking water is something we can’t take for granted,” Dayton said.

Saturday’s crowd included environmentalists, more than 30 lawmakers, business leaders, professors and others interested in water quality.

Dayton convened the summit after reports indicated much of southwest Minnesota water is not safe for drinking or recreation. In some cases, cities have been forced to provide bottled water for residents to drink.

In a report last week, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said that 60 percent of wells in the central sands area have high nitrate concentrations, which is dangerous to drink.

The governor plans to ask lawmakers for funds so communities, especially small ones in rural areas, can treat water so it is safe.

While Dayton said, as he often has in the past, that everyone must work to fix the issue, one farmer-lawmaker complained that it appeared Dayton vilified farmers for polluting Minnesota waters.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said he felt Dayton blamed farmers for pollution as he opened the day-long summit.

On the other hand, Torkelson added, “he has actually ramped down his rhetoric” from when Dayton offered his proposal last year to require vegetative buffer strips between cropland and water.

Dayton told reporters that he was not singling out farmers.

“Those who are sources of the problems also are sources of the solutions,” Dayton said.

Even though Torkelson was not happy with some of Dayton’s words, he said that the summit elevates water quality as an important issue.

Summit participants spent much of their time in small sessions, where they discussed water quality problems and potential solutions. They discussed actions such as different types of tillage to prevent erosion, better communications and the need to use proven facts to make decisions.

Some of the things they suggested included:

— Base decisions on science, not politics.

— “Encourage less finger pointing.”

— Showcase things that work to stem pollution.

— Make sure people understand that controversial genetically modified seeds can result in farmers using less fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides.

— Conservation practices can reduce runoff.

— The public does not understand what farmers do, and why, so they need to improve communications with Minnesotans.

— Soils are different across Minnesota, so preventing pollution from chemicals farmers use may need different solutions.

One thing discussed in more than one breakout session was the need for farmers to make money, which often is made more difficult when taking steps to prevent pollution.

“It is hard to be green when you are in the red,” Torkelson said.

Dayton said that water quality efforts need to be balanced so farmers and the environment both benefit.

Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, said he senses that farmers want to be part of the water quality solution. Growing up in rural northwestern Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s, he said that he saw farmers work with federal programs to install waterways and terraces to reduce soil erosion and expects the same results in the new water quality drive.

Persell, a water scientist, said the summit will bring focus to the issue.

Torkelson said the buffer law that passed last year needs to be clarified this year because there are too many questions about how it is to be enforced. “If we don’t clarify this bill, it is going to end up in court.”