Best of Times for Watershed Management

by Louis Smith and Chuck Holtman July 18, 2005

When Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” to begin the Tale of Two Cities, he was thinking about the divine right of kings and not watershed management in Minnesota. “Wisdom and foolishness, . . . hope and despair,” it was all there in 18th Century Paris and London. Yet as we survey our 21st Century landscape and take stock of our water resources in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and 92,000 miles of streams, it is also difficult to miss the contrasts.

Fuel for pessimists
There is plenty to keep the pessimists going. Nine hundred and twenty Minnesota lakes and 203 streams are considered “impaired” under the Clean Water Act so far, with only 14 percent of the lakes and 8 percent of the streams assessed! It is likely that if we ever complete the assessment, we will find over 10,000 impaired water bodies. The cumulative effect of what we are doing to our land one small step at a time has come to be a serious threat to our quality of life.

The culprit is primarily the stormwater runoff that travels from our homes, shops, and offices, across over-fertilized lawns, farm fields, and shopping mall parking lots, through storm drains and drainage ditches, to our wetlands, lakes, and streams. The Metropolitan Council reports that the rate of land consumption for development doubled between 1992 and 1997, and the Council projects that the metropolitan area will add another million people within 25 years. The Council and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have found recently that at least 100,000 acres of significant natural areas are lying in the path of this projected development.

While we may not be living in the worst of economic times, we seem to be ever pinched for adequate funding to address environmental challenges. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that it will cost easily more than $1 billion over ten years to make serious progress in restoring our state’s impaired waters. And even with significant funding, true progress in restoring our impaired waters can seem elusive; after hundreds of millions of dollars invested in riparian easements along the Minnesota River, the river stubbornly resists the attainment of our water quality goals.

Unprecedented management capacity
Is there hope? In fact, it is not difficult to believe that we have arrived to the best of times in watershed management. In many ways, there never have been more tools and resources at our disposal. As one watershed professional commented recently, “We have a Ferrari parked in the garage, but we haven’t really started to drive it.” Environmental engineering firms in Minnesota have amazingly robust hydrologic and hydraulic modeling ability. They can tell us quite clearly what the impacts of land use development are on the quality of our water resources, both now and in the future, and they can tell us what changes in our landscape are necessary to improve water quality.

We have equally sophisticated models to assess the functions and values of wetlands, and are building detailed GIS inventories of our wetlands and other natural resource attributes that help watershed managers to set priorities for protection and restoration. While the prospect of “TMDLs” and development restrictions loom in much of our water quality discussions, many watershed districts are not waiting for either lawsuits or state funding to begin constructing their own local models to allocate pollutant loading and manage land use development and stormwater to targeted outcomes.

In fact, the best of these local models have used citizen panels to study the water quality data, learn watershed strategies, and set water quality goals for lakes and streams. Even better, citizen groups are stepping up to monitor lakes and streams to gather data themselves, work with technical experts to convert those data into meaningful information, and then work with local government officials to take action on what they learn.

The “Third Generation” of metropolitan watershed planning currently underway in our metro watershed districts presents a fantastic, unprecedented opportunity for a new era of mutual engagement by cities and watershed organizations in an integration of comprehensive land use planning and water resource protection. In past decades, some cities and watersheds have encountered conflict when a water resource protection agenda seems to conflict with development and growth of the local tax base. The Clean Water Act, the Wetland Conservation Act, and the market’s recognition of the economic value of preserving natural amenities together create a new policy climate, such that many city and watershed officials now realize the necessity of a complementary, collaborative approach. Comprehensive land use plans, water resources management plans, wetlands management, open space and land preservation programs, all are now leading down this same path.

We have both the technical ability and the political imperatives necessary to create comprehensive, sustainable approaches to development and water resource protection. The economic demand for efficient use of resources and the growing sophistication of our region’s real estate markets are placing an increasing priority on integrated land use and watershed management. Of course it is critical to note that economic and technical resources are not equitably distributed throughout the state. In fact many of our natural resource treasures lie in areas where the local tax base does not support adequate watershed management capacity. This inequitable distribution is one more strong reason to work toward statewide approaches such as the Clean Water Legacy.

Count our blessings
But from a global perspective, one can bet that the rest of the world is rightly jealous of the general capacity and commitment to watershed protection in Minnesota. We should count these blessings, realize that in fact we are living in the “best of times,” and get to work.