Seeking Clean Water in a Fiscal Crisis: It's Time to Go Local

By Louis N. Smith

March 2003—As Minnesota confronts an unprecedented fiscal crisis, there will be plenty of pain to go around. So it should be no surprise for those of us concerned with protecting the environment when the budget-cutting ax hits our favorite environmental programs.

Of course, it would be better for the environment if there were no fiscal crisis. In the face of our harsh financial reality, we are forced to ask what can still be done, even done well, with less? There are significant disagreements ahead in St. Paul, but many can agree with Governor Pawlenty's observation in his State of the State message that "in a time so dominated by big government . . . perhaps we have lost our understanding of the role citizens can play."

For Minnesota citizens committed to the cause of clean water, the answer appears to be to go local. "Going local" means to accept physical realities about our Minnesota lakes and streams along with fiscal realities of the state budget. Today's threat to water quality in Minnesota comes not from the "point sources" of industrial discharge pipes into our rivers. The greatest threat is from "non-point sources" of stormwater runoff that travels from our homes, shops, and offices, across fertilized lawns, farm fields, and shopping mall parking lots, through storm drains and drainage ditches, to our wetlands, lakes, and streams. It is what we do to our land, in small daily doses, that threatens our water most.

This means that Governor Pawlenty is right on target when he calls upon us "to rediscover what we as individual citizens might do" for the cause of conservation. There is plenty to be done. Minnesota is a state of 92,000 miles of rivers and streams, and only five percent are assessed for water quality standards. Basic water quality monitoring is not rocket science, but something that ordinary citizens and students can easily be trained to do. If you and a handful of your friends from your workplace, school, place of worship, or neighborhood gave just six mornings a year to tracking the health of a Minnesota river, we would be on the path to significant water quality protection and improvement.

Collecting this information and sharing it locally is important, because most of the critical decisions affecting our lakes and rivers are made by local government -- our planning commissions, city councils, watershed districts, soil and water conservation districts, and county boards. Local government officials are eager to be more informed about local conservation, and a network of informed citizens can provide the critical link between water quality data and land use decisions.

So we should heed Governor Pawlenty's concern that "our beautiful Minnesota environment is under increasing stress," and then devote a few hours a year ourselves to doing something about it. The beauty of locally led conservation is that it can be largely a conversation among neighbors. Neither the heavy hand of Big Government, nor its purse, is necessary to achieve meaningful progress.

We live in an era of effective environmental engineering, in which the Best Management Practices - how we develop and construct upon the land so as to best conserve our natural resources - are well established. The basic tools of stormwater management, erosion control, and vegetation buffers to protect our wetland, lakes, and streams are readily available. If we introduce water quality concerns early enough into the land use development process, we'll achieve great benefit with marginal increased cost. Locally led conservation efforts can be far more sustainable and effective than regulatory mandates imposed from St. Paul or Washington.

Environmental issues are easier to address in times of economic abundance, but as we hope for better times, it would do us a world of good to get busy and "go local." The secret to the most powerful environmental action to save our lakes and rivers isn't in Minnesota's budget, but lies instead in the commitment simply to work as citizens within our own small watersheds. In pursuing locally led conservation, we replace Big Brother with our neighbors down the creek. And when Big Brother is having hard times, we neighbors down the creek have even more reason to do our part.

—Originally published by the Rivers Council of Minnesota, for which Louis N. Smith serves as chair of the board of directors. Mr. Smith is a partner of Smith Parker, PLLP, publisher of Water Laws.