Milkshakes and water policy

“When I think about a groundwater aquifer, I think of a giant milkshake glass,” Arizona law professor Robert Glennon told MPR. “And when I think about a well, I think about that well as a straw in the glass. ”

In Minnesota, we might have too many straws in the glass. Farm irrigation and mining are two obvious straws in the glass. Another is the lawn sprinkling system that runs on a timer, even when it’s raining. Even the water wasted by leaving the faucet running while washing dishes or brushing teeth adds up.

MPR’s great series, Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge, is visiting Arizona this week, looking at lessons we can learn from that state. Hard to believe, isn’t it? In water policy, Arizona has some progressive policies that can teach Minnesota a thing or two.

MPR’s Dan Kraker, reporting from Tucson, describes their water crisis of 40 years ago, and smart solutions since then — legislation, education, enforcement, but most of all a change in attitude to “a new water conservation ethic.” Among the specifics: Tucson Water’s on-the-spot consultations for individual homeowners, higher prices for water beyond basic needs, requiring efficient toilets, discouraging front lawns and water-intensive plants.

Tucson’s result: declining water use, even as the population grows.

Arizona is drier than Minnesota, but we are developing water problems, too. Both quantity and quality matter in Minnesota water policy: dropping groundwater levels and contamination of lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Beneath the Surface sums it up:

“Even in the land of 10,000 lakes, water is no longer unlimited. Lakes shrink, groundwater drops, wells go dry or get contaminated. Some cities have to look harder for good municipal water or pay more to treat it. Twenty years ago these were isolated problems. But three-quarters of Minnesota’s residents get their water from aquifer-tapping wells, and today parts of the state seem to be on a path that is not sustainable.”

Irrigation is increasing in Minnesota. Decades ago, irrigation was mostly for dry land farming in other states. Now you can see irrigation systems across Minnesota fields. MPR found that irrigation is a major stress on ground water, and that a lot of it is off the books:

“Of roughly 1,200 crop irrigation wells drilled from 2008 to 2012, more than 200 likely are operating without a permit, a Minnesota Public Radio News investigation of public well records found. In addition, nearly 200 others operated without a permit until the past year or so.”

It’s not just corn — potatoes are a problem in Park Rapids, with water quantity issues complicated by nitrate pollution from irrigated crops.

Water use issues stretch across the country. The New York Times recent water-related stories include:

And that’s not even getting into the issues from significant “accidental” contamination, like the West Virginia toxic spill that left 300,000 people without drinkable water or the North Carolina coal ash spill or the still-lingering effects of the Exxon Valdez (Alaska) and the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in March, Kate Galbraith decried the scarcity of water reporting:

“As a general matter, far too few journalists around the country pay attention to water. Whereas major papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal throw multiple reporters at energy, the water beat doesn’t really exist, except at a handful of publications, and often as a forlorn subset of environmental or government coverage.”

One of the resources Galbraith cited is Circle of Blue, which has “an intense focus on water and its relationships to food, energy, and health,” and an international scope.

We in Minnesota are lucky to have not just 10,000 lakes and lots of water, but also the great reporting of MPR on these issues. MPR deserves thanks (and many more readers) for Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge.

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