Minnegram: special MN Water Resources Conference Edition

November 29, 2023

The 2023 Minnesota Water Resources Conference returned to the St. Paul RiverCentre October 17-18, with attendance numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels, nearing 900. Attendees had over 100 breakout presentations to choose from, as well as in-depth plenary sessions, covering the health of the Mississippi River watershed, leadership discussion of drinking water, and a fusion of engineering and art as a vision and tool for future water resource planning.


Tuesday morning’s plenary was a panel discussion, Minnesota’s Drinking Water Sustainability, Threats and the Future, led by Marcelle Lewandowski, Water Resources Center, and Tannie Eshenaur, Minnesota Department of Health. The panelists were Jeff Broberg, Minnesota Well Owners Organization, Jon Eaton, City of Eagan, Caitlyn Meyer, Olmstead Soil and Water Conservation District, and Lori Blair, Minnesota Rural Water Association. 

Panel members highlighted challenges to drinking water safety in a variety of environments.

Following the framing of the discussion by Eshenaur and Lewandowski, Lori Blair spoke of the challenges faced by smaller rural communities, with water system sustainability jeopardized by a smaller tax base. Treating water for an ever-increasing list of contaminants, maintaining, and upgrading infrastructure, and finding and retaining operation specialists in a shrinking labor market are constant pressures on the delivery of clean water to the communities. In closing, Blair pointed to the importance of the Minnesota Rural Water Association’s partnership with smaller communities: “We must maintain these partnerships to provide low cost, safe drinking water for everyone, whether it is small, rural or tribal.”

Larger cities also struggle with finances and employment around water treatment and infrastructure, said Jon Eaton.  Eagan is faced with aging water system assets, as older sections of the city are coming up to the 75-year replacement window. One solution may be to prioritize critical sections of infrastructure and move to a 150-year replacement plan, which is fraught with uncertainty, but pushing the lifecycle will give Eagan more time to plan and budget. 

Eaton pointed to water source protection as a key factor in preventative water treatment and offers cities the option to tap into federal funding from the EPA and USDA. 

Looking to the future, the American Water Works Association has created Water 2050, a proactive program that contains five modules: sustainability, technology, economics, governance, and social and demographic issues. “I think it’s really good,” said Eaton, “The idea is that if you know or have an idea where you are going, you can set a path, instead of just meandering down the road and reacting.”

Private well health was next on the docket, presented by Jeff Broberg. Private well owners are responsible for the health of their water, through periodic testing. There is no state regulatory permitting for well owners to test their water. “It’s up to them,” said Broberg. People are receptive to well water screening events, and open to public health guidance, but need continual messaging to act alone to test and to educate themselves. Adding to the challenge of providing accurate information to well owners are mixed messages, misinformation, and misdirection. “We know we can engage communities with this message: It’s your well; it’s your plumbing, it’s all yours. And we are here to help,” said Broberg.

Caitlyn Meyer led with the statement that the upper aquifers in Olmstead have been abandoned for potable water use due to the nitrate levels. Meyer stressed the disconnect between encouraging private well owners to test their water and then leaving them alone to sort out the resulting costs for remediating their wells if they find contamination. Some relief in that sector is the pilot grant program from the Minnesota department of Health that provides funding assistance to well owners who need it. “Testing doesn’t help if you don’t help implement a solution,” said Meyer.


Lori Sprague, US Geological Survey, Water Mission Area, presented Wednesday morning’s plenary: The Mighty Mississippi Through the Lens of Nutrients and Gulf Hypoxia: How Does Minnesota Fit In?

The hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico is now roughly the size of Connecticut, creating a substantial hardship for shrimp fishermen who must detour and sail much further to find shrimp and maintain their livelihoods. Hypoxia is a naturally occurring event, on record as far back as the late 1800's, and will always be part of the aquatic ecosystem. Hypoxia occurs when large amounts of algae, fed by nutrients, natural and manmade, die, sink, decompose and suck the oxygen out of the water, making the zone challenging for aquatic life. Sprague says reducing the transport of nutrients, especially nitrogen, into the Gulf from the Mississippi River is key to shrinking the current size of the hypoxic zone.

Lori Sprague, US Geological Survey, talked about the current state of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and answered audience questions about the connection to MN's N reduction plan.

There are multiple sources of nitrogen in the Mississippi River, from all along the basin, as far north as Minnesota. Artificial fertilizer, livestock manure, and atmospheric deposition from industrial emissions are the major contributors of manmade nutrients in the Gulf. 

Strategies to combat the rise in nitrogen include vegetative areas like buffers and cover crops where plants can take up the nutrients before runoff carries the nitrogen to streams and rivers. Helping farmers determine the proper amounts of fertilizer for crops as well as timing of application has also had a positive impact on lowering nutrient levels. 

The USGS estimates that the nutrient loads in the Gulf are now half of what they would be without governmental recommended changes in land and water management. “Whatever the magic combination of things that worked, we’d be much worse off than if we hadn’t done those things,” said Sprague. 

Art and Engineering: A Partnership for the PlanetPaige Novak, Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering, University of Minnesota and Gudrun Lock, Weisman Art Museum. 

The presentation focused on the challenges and benefits of using circular versus linear views of finding, using and disposing of natural resources, particularly water. Linear thinking is the traditional process for implementing technology, engineering and doing business. Lock and Novak seek to teach students to use circular thinking instead, thinking of wastewater, for example, as a resource to be recycled and potentially reconfigured to be returned to its rightful place. Traditional, linear wastewater treatment is very labor and energy intensive, requiring two percent of total US energy use. Circular treatment of industrial wastewater, from dairies or breweries, for example, would capture the energy and nutrients of the water and use that for agricultural land, rather than unnecessarily creating potable water where it is not needed.

To that end, they have created an interdisciplinary learning program, using ideas from multiple disciplines to problem solve in a new way. In fall of 2022, the new program welcomed eleven students from multiple disciplines, such as bio products, bio systems, engineering, and public affairs. There is also a graduate student component, emphasizing the policy side of science in shaping environmental policy and urban and regional planning.

The speakers hope for a cultural shift where people view trees not as shade bearing possessions, but as living ecosystems, that help clean the water, bring beauty to the environment and create habitat for fauna and birds. 

“We are hoping in four years we’ll be a lot closer to this vision, where we’ve got policy and community, science and engineering all coming together to create more of these circular solutions because they’re not just focused on the end of the pipe,” said Novak.