Clean water needs to be a priority — now

November 1, 2022 7:00 am

Wetlands just of north of the tailings dam at the PolyMet site. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota had a dry summer, with several million people living in areas affected by the drought. Is this the worst drought we’ve been through? No. Is it as bad as in the southwest, where giant reservoirs are drying up, the mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, and scientists say this is the worst drought in 1,200 years?


But this dry season — and the water restrictions Minnesota DNR called for earlier this month ought to give us pause. The Land of 10,000 Lakes may not be drying up, and people might not be worrying if the water they drink and play in is polluted yet, but the warnings are all around us. 

We cannot afford to take our clean water for granted. 

Unfortunately, many politicians and state agencies are doing just that.

As one example, this past legislative session, a bill that would have allocated funds to study and craft a science-based plan to protect Minnesota’s water passed the DFL-led House, but died in the GOP-majority Senate. This bill simply would have directed non-partisan scientists to create a concrete plan to ensure a 50-year supply of clean water for the state. Yet, even this bare minimum was voted down.

How is it that our state’s clean water has become a partisan issue? How is it that we are not all rallying around the resource that every Minnesotan needs, that every sector of our economy relies on? 

Instead, the vast majority of political energy goes into promoting divisive projects that threaten our clean water.

Minnesota DNR, tasked with managing our natural resources, permitted Line 3. The construction of this pipeline already resulted in the breach of three aquifers, which contaminated the surrounding groundwater. Enbridge, the Canadian company behind Line 3, faces misdemeanor charges and a large fine, but such slaps on the wrists do not restore the quality of the now-polluted water.

In 2018, DNR permitted the PolyMet copper-sulfide mine, opening the gates for a notoriously polluting industry to set up shop in Minnesota. Copper-sulfide mining has never been done in Minnesota and is much more polluting than traditional iron mining. There has never been a copper-sulfide mine anywhere in the world that failed to pollute the surrounding water systems. In a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota, PolyMet would be a disaster for freshwater.

Further, PolyMet would pollute Lake Superior, which contains 10% of the world’s freshwater. The lake also serves as the main source of drinking water for the city of Duluth.

The permits for PolyMet were rushed through and contained many flaws that violated the law and put people in danger. Thankfully, the risky project has been temporarily stopped in court by dedicated citizen and Native groups. 

What is the point of calling for water restrictions on citizens if our state is going to turn around and allow international extractive conglomerates to pollute far more clean water for profit? 

What if we spent less time coddling these polluting industries and more energy trying to protect our most precious resource? This is more than a rhetorical question. It is an urgent call to action.

According to some reports, by 2025, over half of the global population could face water scarcity. This scarcity is already affecting the United States through record droughts in California and other states attempting to buy Minnesota’s clean water. Unfortunately, 56% of Minnesota’s waters are already impaired.

And it’s only getting worse.

In 2022, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added 305 water bodies to its Impaired Waters list, bringing the total to 2,904 bodies of water that the state considers to be unhealthy due to several pollutants, including mercury, algae growth, PFAS and other “forever chemicals.”

For anyone willing to read it, the writing is on the wall. It’s not a future concern. The world, and the United States, are currently facing a shortage of clean, freshwater.

The time for our state agencies and elected leaders to take action is now. Let’s not wait until this becomes an all-out crisis in Minnesota.

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