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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: An ounce of clean water protection for pounds of cure

Minnesota ranks first in wetland loss and second in deforestation nationally.

Like conservation efforts in Ecuador, Brazil and Kenya, The Nature Conservancy recently launched its Minnesota Headwaters Fund to support conservation work in Mississippi River watersheds that provides clean water to millions of residents in the Twin Cities. In this piece, we talk with Rich Biske, Freshwater Conservation Program Director, about the threats to clean water in Minnesota and why he thinks this Water Fund will be an important part of the solution by investing in the protection of clean water in Minnesota before it is polluted.

Source: Lark, Salmon, and Gibbs. “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters. (April 2, 2015)

Source: Lark, Salmon, and Gibbs. “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters. (April 2, 2015)

Why is the Minnesota Headwaters Fund needed?

We Minnesotans take pride in the abundance of magnificent waters in our state from Lake Superior and the Mississippi River to our more than 10,000 lakes and 69,000+ river miles. A clean, consistent supply of water is essential to our health and prosperity here in Minnesota. But we are falling short at keeping our waters clean in some parts of the state despite spending nearly $125 million last year on watershed assessment, planning and conservation practices.

Why are you focusing on the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River supplies drinking water to more than 1 million people in Minneapolis, St. Paul and other communities in Minnesota. Minneapolis takes its water from the river near Anoka, just below where the Rum River comes in, and has a couple different treatment facilities. St. Paul pumps water from the river in Fridley to a chain of four reservoir lakes before delivering it via canals and conduits to the treatment plant. This water is augmented by groundwater from several deep wells.

The Mississippi is also important to wildlife. The river is a vital migration corridor for 60 percent of North America’s bird species and provides habitat for fish, rare mussels and other wildlife. It offers hunters, anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts exceptional recreational opportunities.

Is the water clean and safe to drink?

Yes, because both cities have invested in state-of-the-art treatment facilities. They will always be able to treat the water, but as nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and other contaminants increase, so does the cost of providing clean, safe water.  Right now, Mississippi River water entering the Minneapolis and St. Paul intakes is below the impaired waters threshold for nutrients, but nitrate levels are steadily increasing.

Where are the nutrients coming from?

Minnesota is one of the top 10 states in the nation in production of both crops and livestock. We are critical to maintaining a stable food supply here in the U.S., and we help feed the world. But forestland, hay fields and Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, which help capture and filter nutrients from agricultural runoff before it enters rivers and streams, are rapidly being converted to row crops, and their water-cleansing services are being lost.

How much of that water-cleansing land is being converted to agriculture?

Permanent conversion within the Mississippi River basin averaged about 1 percent per year from 2008 to 2015. That is roughly 1 million acres of new cropland created since 2008. But agricultural land conversion fluctuates with global commodity prices and markets, so acres converted can vary from year to year by up to 2-3 percent of the basin area. And, unfortunately, some of the fastest rates of conversion are happening upstream from the Twin Cities in the central portion of the Mississippi River headwaters area in and around Stearns County. As a result of the recent land conversion in the headwaters area, Minnesota ranks first in wetland loss and second in deforestation nationally:

Source: Lark, Salmon, and Gibbs. “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters. (April 2, 2015)

Source: Lark, Salmon, and Gibbs. “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agricultural and Biofuel Policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters. (April 2, 2015)

If we do nothing to stop the trend, what is likely to happen?

As land conversion increases and we lose the forests and grasslands that absorb runoff and capture and filter nutrients from the water, nutrient levels will increase and costs to treat drinking water will rise. According to a 2008 study by the Trust for Public Land, for every 10 percent decrease in forest cover in a source water area, the cost of water treatment for communities increases by 20 percent. By protecting these natural lands now, we will avoid the high cost of restoration needed once the waters are degraded.

Does this trend also affect climate change and does it present an opportunity?

There is a net carbon loss when forests and perennial grasslands are converted to cropland because they release carbon into the atmosphere and the ability to store carbon in the future is lost. At the same time, the land also loses the ability to absorb and store water at the same rate and to the same extent. So multiple services that natural habitats provide are lost via conversion. These lost natural features go from a net environmental asset to a liability requiring some form of mitigation elsewhere to make up for water quality or climate change impacts.

Through the Natural Capital Project and NatureVest, the Conservancy has been working on ways to appropriately value the full suite of ecosystem services that nature provides and find ways to pay for those services, combining payments for carbon, water quality, habitat, pollinators, watershed protection, flood protection, etc.  We believe there is an opportunity, but it requires a solid institutional and scientific framework for placing an ecosystem service value on nutrients and carbon.

What else is at risk aside from drinking water for the Twin Cities?

The lakes and rivers where we fish, swim and boat are at risk from nutrient runoff. Protecting land in the Mississippi River headwaters area will sustain and enhance water quality in these lakes and rivers, along with the recreation opportunities they provide, which are a big part of Minnesota’s tourist economy. In the process, we will also protect forests and forestry jobs, another economic driver.

How is the Minnesota Headwaters Fund part of the solution?

It allows downstream water users to invest in upstream conservation actions that provide clean drinking water and other benefits. We are using the funds it generates to protect the most critical lands for water and habitat value that are also at risk of conversion. To do this, we work with local partners to set priorities, engage landowners and leverage public funds with our private funds. Funds are used to implement on-the-ground conservation including working forest easements, strategic land acquisition and restoration of shoreline, wetlands and forests. Our long-term goal is to protect at least 100,000 acres and restore another 100,000 acres of forest and grassland that has already been lost to conversion.

Is this water fund a new idea or part of a larger trend?

It’s not new. New York City has been using the water fund concept to protect its drinking water supply for years. And The Nature Conservancy has many water fund initiatives in various stages of development in the U.S. and around the world. They provide a steady source of funding for the conservation of more than 7 million acres of land in places like Santa Fe, Ecuador, Brazil and Kenya. We are in the process of exploring the use of water funds in China and India to help clean up lakes and rivers in those countries.

Through the Minnesota Headwaters Fund, we have the opportunity to protect the clean water we all depend on before it is prohibitively expensive and impractical to do so.

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