Opinion: Gaps in governance drive drinking water problems in Minnesota

February 14, 2024

We recently completed an assessment of drinking water governance for the state of Minnesota. This was commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Health as a contribution to the development of a 10-year strategic plan for drinking water policy that aims at ensuring a more resilient, safe and equitable drinking water supply. 

Here we want to draw attention to recent local problems that underline why it is needed.

Last April, a group of Minnesotans petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency powers to protect drinking water in southeast Minnesota. They argued there was a “substantial endangerment” of water consumers because state and local regulators failed to reduce the nitrate contamination of waters supplying drinking water wells. In a letter published in November, the EPA agreed and required state agencies to take action that included developing a coordinated and comprehensive work plan to address the problem.

The petitioners were essentially challenging governance — who should be making decisions, and how, about drinking water management. Currently, drinking water decisions are led by the Department of Health, local utility managers, the Departments of Agricultural and Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency, the Public Facilities Authority and multiple state and local agencies that implement conservation programs to protect drinking water sources. Each of these agencies has broader missions beyond water.

In our assessment of governance, we heard from the drinking water professionals who are responsible for delivering our drinking water. They told us about the strengths of the system, but they also identified gaps in governance that impact the effectiveness and efficiency of water management, and weaknesses in how diverse values and perspectives are incorporated into decision-making.

Many of the gaps uncovered by our study are illustrated by the situation in southeast Minnesota that motivated the petition to the EPA regarding nitrate contamination.

First, private well water is poorly protected. Whereas cities have professional water managers, homeowners with wells are essentially responsible for protecting their aquifer, monitoring water quality, and managing their treatment and delivery systems. As a society, we need to consider what support is fair to provide to homeowners with wells, and to acknowledge that source water can only be protected at the scale of aquifers, not individual wells.

Second, better coordination is needed across the federal, state and local agencies responsible for protecting the sources of drinking water and delivering water efficiently and equitably at the tap. There needs to be streamlining of the many agencies involved.

Third, the debate about trade-offs needs to be public. The petition in April was motivated by trade-offs between agricultural production and clean drinking water. For example, how do the costs and benefits of regulating nitrates at the source stack up against those of installing technology to remove them later? Recognizing that we all benefit from agricultural production and clean drinking water, who should pay? The delivery of safe drinking water involves many other tradeoffs between prevention and treatment, and who pays. These choices need to be based on science and citizens’ values, and that requires transparent public discussion.

Finally, risks are not eliminated, but managed. Water will always have impurities from natural and human sources, but not all impurities need to be treated. The idea of pure water is compelling, but impractical. Science can define which contaminants at what levels should be targeted to protect human health, but targeting also depends on risk perceptions and value priorities. The Department of Health should facilitate more open discussions about risk management.

We are fortunate in Minnesota that water infrastructure works so well that most of us don’t think a lot about it. But if we are to ensure it stays reliable, there needs to be more public interest.

Right now, we have a unique opportunity to address the vulnerabilities of drinking water delivery, and to bring more voices into decision making. The Minnesota Department of Health is in the process of engaging hundreds of professionals and citizens across the state for its strategic plan. The department has long been making efforts to reach out to communities across the state. By more of us engaging in this conversation, we are telling MDH that we expect this transparency and coordination. Commenting on this plan helps ensure your values will guide how water decisions are made for the next ten years.

Peter Calow is a professor in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. A. Marcelle Lewandowski is a senior coordinator at the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota.