Clean water is on the chopping block

Published 2:33 pm Friday, May 20, 2011

Column: Tom Landwehr and Paul Aasen, Guest Column

In an era of tough economic choices, we’d like to remind folks about something we can no longer take for granted, something that has been almost an afterthought in recent budget discussions: water.

Tom Landwehr

Clean, abundant water defines who we are and what we value as Minnesotans. We all need and expect clean, healthy water to drink. Water provides jobs, drives our quality of life, supports fish and wildlife habitat, and is the cornerstone of a $10 billion a year tourism industry.

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Water makes us or breaks us, whether we’re sandbagging against 39 feet of flood waters in Fargo-Moorhead, irrigating a farm field or restoring a favorite fishing lake.

The way we protect and manage our water resources today will determine our prosperity tomorrow.

Yet proposed legislative funding cutbacks could decimate the state’s ability to effectively monitor, protect and manage our water. For example, under proposed cuts the DNR would lose more than half its field hydrologists, while the MPCA is expected to lose many of the environmental scientists who support the agency’s water protection and cleanup activities.

This might not mean much to you if you don’t have a water problem. But if you are a landowner whose well is being compromised or is drying up, help will be slow in coming under proposed cuts. If you are a local unit of government needing state help with floodplain ordinances so residents can qualify for flood insurance, you may be out of luck.

If you own a business that needs a permit to appropriate water, you will wait longer for it. If you are a city or business that needs a wastewater permit to start up or expand, your permit will be delayed by at least 30 to 40 days. Because of that delay, six or seven municipal wastewater projects each year will miss the deadline for receiving state and federal funding. Both the DNR and MPCA will be unable to meet Gov. Mark Dayton’s January executive order intended to speed our permitting processes.

Paul Aasen

There would be other impacts as well. We will know less about our groundwater resources that are being depleted. Our ability to predict floods could be hampered in some areas. Lakeshore protection would be diminished. Thirty local watershed groups and counties won’t receive grants to protect their lakes and streams.

We will have fewer hydrologists and environmental scientists. That means local governments — crippled by tight budgets and relying on the state for help with things like flood insurance, septic systems and feedlots — will receive less help. We’ll be less able to provide interpretations of climate data. Groundwater research and monitoring might grind to a halt. We’ll be less able to identify water impacts of proposed new projects because environmental review will not happen in some cases.

We should not be reducing our commitment to water resources; we should be increasing our investment. In fact, Minnesota voters told us in 2008 that water was priority one by passing the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The state constitution dictates, however, that Legacy dollars cannot be used to fill behind cuts to the general fund.

So let’s at least agree that clean, abundant water is a necessity, not a luxury. Even when dollars are tight, positive outcomes require long-term commitment and work. Minnesota is the land of clean, plentiful waters and our citizens expect this state to continue to protect that resource.

Tom Landwehr is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; Paul Aasen is commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.