A Message from Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam

Six years ago this past spring, Bruce Bomier, then a member of the Freshwater Society Board, approached me about taking on a leadership role in the Society.

I have been privileged to have a number of different careers and positions – Certified Public Accountant, state Senator, chief financial officer for a publishing and printing company and commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – and I thought I might be ready to retire.

Gene Merriam
Gene Merriam

When I accepted the Freshwater presidency, I never expected to serve this long. But now, as I prepare to retire by the end of this year, I’m glad that I had the opportunity and stayed as long as I have.

I am very proud of the accomplishments that we — the Freshwater board, our staff, the blue-ribbon advisory committee that helped us craft a strategic vision for the Society, and the environmental groups that have been partners in a lot of our work – have achieved.

As I prepare to leave the Freshwater presidency, and as the Freshwater Board conducts a search for a new leader of the organization, I am confident that the organization is strong and getting stronger.

Here are some of the things I am proud of:

  • In 2008, with the assistance of our Guardianship Council, that blue-ribbon advisory group I mentioned, we wrote a report on groundwater, lakes, streams and wetlands.

In that report, “Water Is Life: Protecting A Critical Resource For Future Generations,” we said that there was no consensus among groundwater experts whether Minnesota’s groundwater use was sustainable.  Following the report’s publication, we joined the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center in sponsoring two workshops for groundwater professionals on the sustainability issue.

Some lawmakers, notably Rep. Jean Wagenius and former Senators Ellen Anderson and Sandy Rummel, were already working on groundwater sustainability. Our report helped them win support from their colleagues for appropriations for more monitoring wells to track groundwater levels and for writing a new definition of groundwater sustainability into law.

A follow-up report we published last spring, “Minnesota’s Groundwater: Is Our Use Sustainable?” put a number on how much our groundwater pumping has been increasing over the last three decades:  About 2.8 billion gallons per year.

That report included several recommendations for policy changes, and I believe it again helped enact some important changes in groundwater law. One of those changes gives the Department of Natural Resources clear authority to review and comment on requests for high-capacity pumping permits before, not after, the wells are drilled.

  •  Since 2010, Freshwater and the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences have co-sponsored a remarkable series of lectures on water and the environment.

We now are preparing for our 12th and 13th lectures in the series. You can read about them elsewhere in this newsletter.

We have had wonderful lecturers on important and timely topics. They have included:

Reporter, author and documentary filmmaker Headrick Smith, on rural and urban pollution of surface waters;  Environmental Working Group executive Craig Cox,  on agricultural pollution and policy; Stanford ecologist Gretchen Daily, on protecting ecosystems by attaching a dollar value to all the services they provide to humans; investor advocate and corporate watchdog  Mindy Lubber, on persuading companies to set sustainability standards for themselves and their supply chains; and Purdue agricultural economist Otto Doering, on controlling the air and water pollution from excess nitrogen in our environment.

  • Later this fall, our first class of Master Water Stewards will graduate. They are now working, or soon will be, on neighborhood projects aimed at reducing the flow of storm water and pollutants into Minnehaha Creek and the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

This project, a partnership with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, trains citizen volunteers to work in their own communities to reduce water pollution. Another class of volunteer stewards will begin early next year. We hope eventually to expand the program and the areas the stewards serve.

  • In ways that may not be apparent to people outside the Freshwater Society, we have dramatically improved our internal capabilities. We have hired good people and given them opportunities to exercise their talents. We have made changes in our corporate structure that allow us to advocate for policy changes.  We do a much better job of tracking and communicating with our members and supporters. We also do a better job of asking all of you to support our work.

During my six-plus years as Freshwater Society president, I have had the good fortune of working with Joan Nephew, our executive director. Joan is a person with unique talents and energy. She has keen insight into public policy issues and the ability to connect with people, plus administrative skills.

Without Joan to partner with, I doubt I would have stayed this long. She, too, is preparing to reduce her commitment of time to Freshwater and planning to retire sometime next year.

I am confident the Freshwater board and the new executive will continue the important work we have under way and address other important water issues as they develop.


Gene Merriam

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