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Water everywhere … but how clean and for how long?

April 24, 2018 GMT

It’s no secret that Minnesotans are lucky to live in a state with abundant fresh water.

But the consensus of experts at Rochester’s Earthfest Expo on Saturday is that Minnesotans tend to take their 10,000 lakes and hundreds of rivers and streams for granted.

“We did a survey in 2016 and only about 15 percent of Minnesotans believe we have water issues facing us,” said Amy Skoczlas Cole, who leads Minnesota Public Radio ’s “The Water Main” initiative. “People are surprised to find that 40 percent of Minnesota’s lakes and streams are considered impaired, not good for swimming or fishing.”

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Water was the theme of this year’s Earthfest Expo: “Water … every drop counts.” The event was held at Rochester Community & Technical College.

Instinctively, most Minnesotans value their water. But they’ve grown so accustomed to having it almost at their fingertips that they can’t imagine ever being without quality water.

Maintaining that quality, especially in southeastern Minnesota, where karst geology predominates, is challenging, said Sue Kruger, a board member of the Zumbro Watershed Partnership.

“We have 900,000 acres of the Rochester area that drain directly into the Mississippi River, and because we’re in a karst region, we have water issues,” Kruger said.

The karst geology of the region allows runoff water to drain quickly through a shallow soil cover, with a minimum of filtering. As a result, nitrates move easily into the water supply system.

“We are presented with challenges unique to this area,” said Ashley Ignatius, of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “You’re not going to find this anywhere else,” she said of the area’s geology.

At the same time, the struggle to prevent Minnesota’s water from being contaminated isn’t confined to the southeastern corner of the state. The Sierra Club is campaigning against the construction of a new high-capacity pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada through northeastern Minnesota.

“Leaking or drainage from the pipeline will contaminate our drinking water,” said Kenneth Philbrick, of the Sierra Club. “Once you contaminate groundwater, that’s it, there’s no going back.”

As Ignatius said, “You don’t want to pollute your drinking water.”

So, what can be done to keep our water safe? In relation to the region’s groundwater, more funding is an issue, said Kruger, of the Zumbro Watershed. “You can’t ask farmers to do it all by themselves,” she said. “We need state and federal help and funding. We need to push our local elected officials. That’s what we’re working on right now.”

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As for what individuals can do, Jeff Weiss of the state DNR offered some tips, including fixing leaking toilets in your home, and being careful to avoid getting lawn fertilizer and chemicals on the sidewalk and driveway, where they quickly wash into the water supply.

“Be smart about what you buy and use, and how you dispose of it,” Weiss said.

“If we all do a few little things, we’re going to get there,” Ignatius said.