Ensuring Safe, Abundant Water

Water Resource Center co-director and School of Public Health professor Deborah Swackhamer

Minnesota may be known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” but the truth is, we are facing serious water issues just like the rest of the nation. Studies show that around 40 percent of the state’s waters are impaired in some way, and increasing demand for water means there may be shortages to come. Clearly, a plan to ensure safe and abundant water is needed.

That’s why Minnesota is doing what no other state has done—designing and implementing a comprehensive plan for a sustainable water future. The 150-page report is called the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, and it began in 2009 when the state legislature commissioned the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center to create a comprehensive water sustainability plan.

To produce the report a core team headed by Water Resources Center co-director Deborah Swackhamer spent 18 months collecting, compiling, considering and synthesizing the research and input of hundreds of the best scientists and water professionals in the state and region, as well as wide range of citizens and interest groups.

Today, the Framework, which includes timelines and benchmarks for ongoing investments in water resources, is the leading document driving discussion and action on water issues in the state, says Swackhamer, who is also a professor in the University’s School of Public Health and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“There is a lot of interest at the executive level, in the governor’s office, within state agencies and by counties,” she explains. “It’s very heartwarming to see that aspects of the framework resonate with people who do this work every day.”

Outreach and action

The Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework is the first thorough report created to protect and preserve the state’s lakes, rivers and groundwater in this century and into the future. It is also one of many projects through which the University is advancing efforts to deepen the connection between important community issues and the research, teaching and outreach work of the University’s five campuses.

The remarkable collaboration behind the Framework, Swackhamer says, is a good example of how land grant institutions can engage with the public on many levels to work toward long-term outcomes for the state. It also helped build alliances between the University and outside agencies while encouraging experts to work across departments.

“It was great to see how people from so many different perspectives could work together and share ideas,” she recalls, adding that she learned many things during the process, herself. “I operate at the national level, but for this I got to talk to people who work on the ground with individual farmers or people working on watershed issues and I gained a new appreciation that allowed me to put myself in their shoes.”

Critical next steps

Within the context of changing demographics, climate and land use and development, the Framework addresses many different water-related issues. Specific recommendations were made in several areas: drinking water quality, storm water management, agricultural and industrial water use, surface and groundwater interactions, ecological and invasive species concerns and Minnesota’s water infrastructure system.

Currently, the Water Resources Center is moving forward to facilitate the implementation of the plan. With the help of a small grant from the McKnight Foundation, for example, the Center is considering ways to hold a water congress at which state water laws and policies would be reviewed in order to make revisions in alignment with sustainability principles.

“I’m very pleased that the state agencies are anxious to see the Framework be a living document that can be used to move the state forward,” says Swackhamer. “This is real policy that has the potential to make a real difference by transforming Minnesota’s management of its water resources.”

Helping to Build an Engaged University for the 21st Century

Through the Office for Public Engagement, the University promotes interdisciplinary collaborations like the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework that advance robust community engagement partnerships. Rooted in a comprehensive ten-point plan for public engagement, the University supports the deepening of community engagement strategies through the development of community-partnered research that addresses critical societal issues while optimizing educational experiences for students participating in community-focused learning. Learn more about the University’s public engagement agenda.