MANKATO — Both the complexity of Minnesota's water problems and the strong public interest in solving them were in evidence at a community water meeting hosted by Gov. Mark Dayton in Mankato Wednesday night.
The event was the second of 10 "Water Town Hall" meetings Dayton and key commissioners are holding in all corners of the state this summer to build support and consensus for the governor's plan to reduce water pollution by 25 percent by 2025.
"This is such a crucial issue," the governor told a crowd of 200 local government officials, farmers and environmentalists at Minnesota State University. "I know it's just something Minnesota has to face up to, and most other states do."
Kim Musser, the acting director of MSU's Water Resources Center, laid out the plight of water in south-central Minnesota.
"There's huge water quality challenges in this region," Musser said.
She mentioned how the area's iconic Minneopa Falls routinely turn green from algae. She showed maps of nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended-solid levels across Minnesota. All agricultural regions of the state have problems with one or two of the pollutants, but south-central Minnesota hits the trifecta.
And she talked of the erosion problems in area rivers, caused in part from the unprecedented deluge of water they now routinely receive because of heavily tiled farm fields and climate change that's producing more torrential rains.
"People are losing their homes, they're losing their properties, they're losing their farm land," Musser said.
And that farm land, along with sediment from eroded stream banks, is flowing downstream where it causes more problems, including filling up the Mississippi River's Lake Pepin, she said.
But Musser and ensuing speakers also offered tales of progress — farmers, anglers and other lovers of area lakes and rivers joining forces to tackle pollution issues in the Watonwan River and Le Sueur River watersheds. St. Peter's efforts to deal with drinking-water contaminants were explained, as was the work of Lake Crystal's grassroots coalition to address pollution in the city's signature body of water.
Mapleton corn and soybean farmer Steve Trio spoke of his decision to take individual responsibility for how his agricultural production impacted the Cobb River. Working with his son Aaron, Trio has ensured there's protective cover between his farmland and the tributary streams leading to the river, works to be diligent in soil testing to minimize chemical use, and even added a containment system around his fuel tanks long before it was required.
"The thing is, we all gotta dig into this thing, farmers included," Trio said.
Along with being asked to speak to the large group — "I haven't spoke since my FFA days in front of a crowd. I'm just a farmer," Trio told them — he was invited to be the voice of area farmers in a pre-meeting sit-down with Dayton.
Trio, whose farm was the first Minnesota Water Quality Certified Farm in Blue Earth County, said he thought Dayton was pleased to hear about his conservation efforts. The governor wanted to learn about his crops and farming practices and also recognized the tight commodity prices that farmers face.
When Dayton asked his advice on getting all farmers on board, Trio told him to let farmers work with the local people at their Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
“You’ll get a better response,” said Trio, who also suggested that incentives will be better received than mandates.
Dayton joined Trio and the mayors of Mankato and North Mankato when the town hall meeting broke into small-group discussions. Participants — sitting in groups of four to six people — tackled the goals and actions needed to conserve Minnesota's water resources and to ensure aquifers are unpolluted and lakes and rivers are clean enough for fishing and swimming.
The suggested to-do list generated at the dozens of tables quickly grew in length: retain more water in wetlands, moderate flows after rains and snow-melt, exclude livestock from streams, increase no-till acres, reduce impervious surfaces in cities, reduce urban chemical use ... .
Dayton, as he left the Mankato meeting and prepared for Thursday's event in Marshall, said the town halls are giving him hope.
Groups who often placed blame on one another in past water debates were listening to each other and discussing possible solutions.
"That's very encouraging," he said.
Some state and federal funding is available, from wetland restoration dollars to low-interest loans for upgrading municipal sewage treatment. And the next federal farm bill should focus on providing incentives for improved water quality, according to Dayton.
"This is not going to be solved by rules and regulations," he said, suggesting all Minnesotans have to adopt an ethic that the state's heritage is defined by water and it needs to be preserved for future generations.
"We've always been problem-solvers in Minnesota," he said.
With only one legislative session left before retirement, the two-term Democrat noted he won't be in the governor's office to see whether the pollution-reduction goal is met.
"I won't be there," Dayton said. "I hope by 2022, somebody will say, 'Gee, we've already hit 25, let's go for 50.'"
—Marie Wood, associate editor of The Land, contributed to this story.