Freshwater interviews Swackhamer on sustainability framework

For a year, scores of people have met and discussed-sometimes argued about-what Minnesotans need to do over the next 25 years to ensure our lakes, rivers and groundwater are used and managed in a sustainable manner.

The planning effort involved citizens, scientists and representatives of environmental groups, business and agriculture. It was ordered by the 2009 Legislature and paid for from the Clean Water Fund created when Minnesotans voted for a constitutional amendment raising the

Deborah Swackhamer, leader of the sustainability framework effort

Deborah Swackhamer, University of Minnesota professor
of environmental health sciences and science, technology
and public policy

sales tax.

The planning has been led by Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center.

The framework will be presented to the Legislature on Jan. 15. Swackhamer has said it will recommend increased research on groundwater recharge; changes in the permitting of new wells; testing of private wells and septic systems; and land-use planning that attaches a value to the benefits clean water and healthy ecosystems provide.

On the controversial issue of agricultural pollution, she has hinted the framework will suggest a mechanism for ensuring that farm runoff-largely exempt from current regulation-be controlled and reduced. The Freshwater Society interviewed Swackhamer about the framework. The transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity, follows:

What is the Framework and what is it not?
The Framework is a 25-year plan to get the state situated to manage its water resources sustainably. It is not a spending plan for the Clean Water Fund. It is bigger and broader than that.

What role did the Freshwater Society’s 2008 report on water play in the Legislature’s decision to commission the Framework?
The Freshwater Society’s report was often held up as the reason that we needed to move forward. The report very clearly articulated what the big issues were. It did not offer concrete solutions or detailed resolutions to those issues, but it really put them on the table. The Legislature had many people hold up that report, physically, and say: “You need to read this first and then do your plan.”

In writing the Framework, did you uncover any new or startling facts about water in Minnesota?
The one thing I was unaware of and very proud to discover is that Minnesota already has a statute requiring water conservation pricing.

Did you come to new conclusions about previously known facts?
I did. I think where I made the most personal growth or maturation was in how I was thinking about the agricultural problem. We know that is a source of nutrients and bacteria and solids to water systems, and we tend to just treat it in a polarized, black-and-white way-agriculture is bad. What I really wanted to do was change that dialogue to: “How can agriculture and other parts of society work together to fix this problem?” I had lots of really thoughtful conversations with people who had thought about this even longer than I have. We’ve really embraced this idea of working with agriculture as a sector, letting them find solutions but having a structure that requires them to meet certain standards.

At a recent forum, you spoke of “farmer-led co-ops” that would be responsible for meeting clean-up goals set in each watershed. How would that work?
If we have allocations for the main pollutants at a watershed scale, then you could take the agricultural residents of that watershed and say: “You, as a sector, and a contributor of phosphorous, nitrogen, whatever, need to reduce your load to the watershed by X amount.” That threshold would actually be set in the current state and federal regulatory framework. At that point, we would say: “It is required that you meet that loading reduction, but you can figure out how.” If they can’t meet that loading reduction, there would need to be consequences, either fines or something. There would need to be consequences, obviously, to make it happen. I see this converging in about a five- to 10-year time frame.

Is there something that will induce that individual farmer to make changes if he’s inclined to simply say, “I don’t care to participate.”?
In this model, it would require peer pressure on the farmers-landowners that were not willing to participate or do what they should do. We envision there would be financial burdens placed on the agricultural co-op in total. We could also imagine, without getting into details, that that cooperative group of farmers would already have a drainage authority, or several drainage authorities, which have taxing authority. We could imagine that these watersheds would impose a fine on the cooperative, and the cooperative could then fine the residents. At that point, I can imagine that the farmers would work very hard to make sure that everyone is in line or that the bad actors would be brought under control. We don’t want to have to deal with all the farmers in the state as point sources because, one, we couldn’t measure their output and, two, enforcing all of those things would be difficult. Ultimately, we’d like to bring agriculture to the table to discuss how to fix this problem as a group, as opposed to saying, “You’re a point source and we’re going to regulate you.”

What has been the most difficult part of putting together the Framework? What has been the most satisfying?
The most difficult part has been that sometimes the science doesn’t tell us exactly what the right thing is to do. That’s been the toughest thing-what do I recommend around the major issues when there’s not a clear path to follow? The thing that has been most satisfying has been to work on something that has the potential to transform this state and to truly protect the water for us for the future. That’s been an honor.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We have a rare opportunity here. We have a unique, rare, once-in-a-dozen-lifetimes opportunity to do the right thing to protect our waters. It’s because of the amendment, and it’s because Minnesotans care about this stuff. And we don’t want to squander it.