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Cook County residents have seen local rivers send ribbons of mud into Lake Superior every spring and after every major rainstorm. The clay banks are eroding and the brook trout are disappearing. From the Flute Reed River to the Poplar River and Little Devil Track River, our community progress of developing roads, building resorts, and logging have filled the rivers with sediment and affected the natural aquatic life.
To reverse these effects and protect the clear waters of Lake Superior, we have to restore the streams that flow into the lake (more…)
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For Immediate Release: May 16, 2014
2014 Legislative Session: Minnesota’s water will be running clearer, missed opportunities for investments in transit
Saint Paul, MN – May 16, 2014 – The 2014 Minnesota Legislature took several important steps forward to protect and improve Minnesota’s water quality, but the state’s largest environmental coalition said there were also disappointments in transit funding and other issues.
Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP), the statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations working for clean water, clean energy and protection of Minnesota’s Great Outdoors, praised the 2014 Minnesota Legislature for banning the chemical triclosan from all consumer soap and body wash products.
“Legislators made the right decision to phase-out the sale of consumer soap products containing the anti-bacterial ingredient triclosan in our state. Triclosan provides no benefits, and has serious health risks,” said Steve Morse, executive director of Minnesota Environmental Partnership. The new law will ban retailers in Minnesota from selling consumer products containing triclosan that are used for sanitizing or hand and body cleansing. “But we also saw several missed opportunities that are going to be felt directly by Minnesotans.”
2014 Legislative Environmental Scorecard
Protecting Our Clean Water Resources:
Phasing-out the triclosan-contamination to Minnesota’s surface waters: The 2014 Legislature passed the Toxic Reduction Act, which includes a ban on selling triclosan-based cleaning products that are used for sanitizing or hand and body wash, effective January 1, 2017.
Re-establishing the Legislative Water Commission: The Legislature voted to reinstate Legislative Water Commission, which will create an ongoing bi-partisan legislative forum to oversee and coordinate the many organizations efforts underway to protect and restore Minnesota’s water resources.
Investing in innovative, sustainable crop development through the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative: The Legislature included $1 million to advance the Forever Green Initiative to provide long-term funding for University of Minnesota research to accelerate development of economically viable perennial and cover crop options that enhance farm prosperity, water quality, and habitat.
Investing in Clean Energy and Jobs:
Creating low-cost energy efficiency financing tools for businesses: Lawmakers passed, and Governor Dayton signed the supplemental budget bill that included an important provision that will allow the Minnesota Department of Commerce to work with manufacturers, hospitals and other businesses to help fund energy efficiency projects with low-interest financing through its state revenue bond authority. The new law allows $100 million in state revenue bonds for those loans to finance community energy efficiency projects, including industrial, commercial and public projects.
Transparency in actual costs of renewable energy systems: Lawmakers passed the Omnibus Energy Bill, which included a provision requiring projects included under Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard report the actual project cost and allow us to compare the true cost of clean energy vs fossil fuel-based energy.
Addressing Minnesota’s Growing Transportation Deficit:
Passing a comprehensive, balanced, statewide funding for transportation: The 2014 Legislature missed an opportunity to make an investment in Minnesota’s future by addressing the immediate needs for public transit, better connections for bicycling and walking, and fixing our congested, aging roads and deficient bridges.
The Minnesota Legislature took a major step last week toward supporting the kind of agriculture that can green up our landscape in a way that’s economically viable for farmers. Conference committee negotiations produced $1 million for Forever Green, an innovative University of Minnesota research initiative involving cover crops and perennial plant systems. Funding for this initiative has been a major priority for the Land Stewardship Project, and could go a a long ways toward producing the kind of land grant research that can help our state’s agriculture live up to its true potential
To understand why the Forever Green Initiative is so important to the future of Minnesota’s landscape, one has to consider this: there is a big difference between agricultural productivity and agricultural efficiency. In states like Minnesota, the spectacular productivity of our corn-soybean system is evident: bin busting yields are the norm. But there’s a lot of waste underlying all that productivity.
“We just don’t think the current system is efficient,” says Don Wyse, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics and the co-director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.
One of the reasons this production system is so inefficient is that it relies on a raising a few annual summer crops, which cover the land only a few months out of the year. That means for eight months or more, around half of Minnesota lacks any living roots or green ground cover — creating a long bare season. During this brown period, the land is particularly vulnerable to erosion and precipitation runs off the land, carrying with it fertilizers and other chemicals that were not used during the growing season. That’s one reason nitrogen pollution of Minnesota’s water is at such extremely high levels, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In fact, the problem of fertilizer runoff is becoming worse throughout the Mississippi River basin, according to testimony U.S. Geological Survey scientists gave in a congressional hearing last week.
Wyse says such a system is not only wasteful but doesn’t utilize agriculture’s ability to provide key ecosystem services such as keeping pollutants out of water, building soil health, sequestering greenhouse gases and providing wildlife habitat. It also limits economic options for farmers.
“If you stick with the crops that we have now, which are all summer annuals, you won’t be able to produce those ecosystem services,” says Wyse on LSP’s Ear to the Ground podcast. “But if you want a more efficient system, one that produces these ecosystem services, we have to fund the development of a different type of plant system.”
Such a system would cover the land 12 months out of the year. We had this year-round armor back in the day—it was called the tallgrass prairie. We will probably never see the return of such a diverse, sustainable ecosystem on a widespread basis. But Wyse and the other researchers working on the Forever Green Initiative believe they can bring some “functional diversity” back into the landscape by integrating soil-friendly annuals and perennials into the traditional corn-soybean rotation.
“No, these are not native plants, but they are certainly a step forward in providing these ecosystem services,” says Wyse. “Agriculture, I don’t care what it is, it’s a huge human footprint. But we might be able to modify that footprint in a way that makes the system more efficient and more environmentally sound.”
The idea of protecting the land during the corn and soybean “off season” is nothing new to anyone who is familiar with cover crops. In fact, recent attention to rebuilding farmland’s soil health has generated some excitement over the role small grains, brassicas and other “low value” plant systems can play in bringing resiliency back to our fields. But as a recent Forever Green report illustrates, this initiative is trying to take cover cropping several steps ahead agronomically and economically.
And we’re not exactly talking about plant systems that are household names in the Upper Midwest. For example, field pennycress, an annual crop that overwinters, can be seeded after corn or soybeans are harvested in the fall. It provides protection for soil during the fall, winter and spring and produces high-value oil and protein meal from unused fertilizer and water that would otherwise be wasted. It also naturally suppresses weeds and supports honeybees and other pollinators. The U of M has already mapped the genome of pennycress and is using that information to try and create lines that can produce consistent yields of oil and feed in our climate.
Intermediate wheatgrass is another work in progress that holds a lot of potential. Southwest Minnesota farmer Carmen Fernholz has been growing a two-acre test plot of the perennial grass for the past three years in collaboration with Forever Green and the Land Institute. He says it grows over five feet high and since it is so similar to native grasses in his area he knows the root system is deep and extensive. That’s important to Fernholz, who does whatever he can to build soil health on his 400-acre organic crop farm.
“We’re going to have to do something to improve soil properties because we are in fact losing that diversity of soil microbes a healthy system needs,” says Fernholz, who regularly uses rye and other traditional cover crops as part of his rotation. “We do have to accept the fact that agriculture is a soil disturbance process. My goal on my own farm is to minimize that disturbance while staying economically viable.”
The farmer says intermediate wheatgrass has that potential to balance environmental health with economic viability—it could be a source of livestock forage, biomass feedstock, even grain.
On the other hand, he’s noticed how the seed head falls off and shatters before maturing. He’s excited to see how Forever Green research could solve this problem, as well as help develop shade- and drought-tolerant cover crop varieties that would do well when planted right in the rows of a growing corn or soybean field. Innovations in seed varieties as well as field equipment are needed if cover cropping is to work in Minnesota’s short growing season, says Fernholz
Pennycress and wheatgrass are examples of innovations that have come a long way as a result of research resources Wyse and his associates have been able to patch together in recent years. But now it’s time to take the next steps.
“We’ve brought things like this far enough along that I can look anyone in the eye and say, ‘These projects are worth the investment,’ ” says Wyse. “I can’t tell you which ones are going to fail and which are going to be successful, but here’s a core of six or seven projects that are worthy of additional investment for the next five years.”
Part of the reason Forever Green requires long-term investment is because it’s not just a typical research project that takes a narrow, agronomic view of how to improve cover cropping. There’s no doubt the ability of pennycress and wheatgrass to protect the land during the brown season is a plus, but, as Fernholz implies, such alternatives will never catch on unless farmers find them profitable to raise. How can the market value match the environmental value of these crops?
Forever Green proposes doing this by developing incubators across the state that would coordinate the technological, economic and even policy innovations needed to make alternative crops a consistent part of the farming picture. These incubators, which are called “Landlabs,” would help overcome the “chicken or the egg” barriers that often plague innovations in agriculture. What incentive do farmers have to plant a new crop of there is no market for it? And even if there is a market, what if there are no processing and transportation systems available to get the product from the field to the end user?
Landlabs are an attempt to coordinate all of these steps in a way that farmers and other links in the chain aren’t taking on all the initial risk of trying something innovative. The Landlab concept is what sets Forever Green apart from other research initiatives that simply look at how to produce a higher yielding crop—this is a big picture, integrated approach to dealing with the issue of creating diversity on the land.
That’s why Forever Green will require consistent funding over a number of years if it is to be successful. That means an investment of public dollars. After all, it was public funding that helped spawn the revolution in Minnesota corn and soybean production during the 20th Century.
“This isn’t just about one crop—this is about getting more cover on the land and feeding the livestock in our soil,” says Fernholz.
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“Can I ask you a question? It’s probably really dumb, though. But, what exactly is a watershed?”
That, my friend, professional acquaintance, or perfect stranger, is not a dumb question. Not in the least. Here, let me try to explain:
A body of water’s watershed is the land area that drains surface run-off to that body of water. That is to say, if a drop rain falls on land and the ground is saturated, the water will run downhill until it ends up in a body of water, such as the Minnesota River. In this case, the drop of rain would have fallen within the Minnesota River Watershed: the watershed includes all the land (and other upstream surface water) that funnels rain or snow water to the Minnesota River. Because water runs downhill, topography defines the boundary of a watershed—ridges or high points in a landscape form the line between one watershed and another.
It get a little tricky, though, because watersheds nest inside each other. Look, for example, at the watershed map below. Rain falling in Marshall would run first into the Redwood River, so Marshall is within the Redwood River watershed. However, water in the Redwood River flows eventually into the Minnesota River, so Marshall is also in the Minnesota River watershed. And, because the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi River, Marshall is in the Mississippi River watershed, too.
How many watersheds are there?
Yet each of the “watersheds” I named is in some ways arbitrarily defined. Yes, all the land in the Redwood River watershed drains into the Redwood River. But a watershed is really defined by a certain point past which water flows. The DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) Major Watershed named for the Redwood River really refers to that land area that will drain water through the point of the confluence of the Redwood River and the Minnesota River. If you look at the map of waterways in the United States, you’ll see that there are thousands of waterways, and each point on each waterway has its own watershed, in which the watershed of one point encompasses the watershed of an upstream point. Thus, if we use the scientific definition of a watershed, there are an infinite number of watersheds in the region, state, and country. I know that infinite watersheds seems overwhelming, but bear with me because others agree and have tried to clarify things.
To address the practical uselessness of infinite watersheds, the federal government, through the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), defined Hydrologic Units based on topographic data. Each of these Hydrologic Units has a code, called the HUC, with the number of digits in the code increasing as the size of the watershed decreases. The relative size of a watershed is often referred to by the length of the HUC. For example, the watershed map above shows all the HUC-8 watersheds in the Minnesota River Watershed.
The Minnesota DNR built upon this classification to provide a more detailed look at waters in Minnesota. The MN DNR Major Watershed is equivalent to the federal HUC-8. There are 81 Major Watersheds in Minnesota, and these watersheds are the basis for most administrative watershed work, such as the Watershed Projects or Associations. Furthermore, the Board of Water and Soil Resources’ One Watershed, One Plan program encourages the development of watershed-level plans for each of the 81 Major Watersheds in the state.
”Okay, but why does an organization about ‘the River’ keep talking about watersheds?”
While the nomenclature is all very confusing, there is an important lesson to take from all this: you live in a watershed. No ifs, ands, or buts. In Minnesota, rain and snow fall on your home and the land surrounding it, and that water flows downhill and ends up in a body of water somewhere. Which watershed you live in will tell you which body of water your practices on the land affect. Thus, we use watersheds as a geographic unit—a certain defined area—to help us understand why our waterways are in the state that they are in.
Land Use, Watersheds, and Rivers
This is the key message: what happens on the land is very important for an organization concerned about water quality because the path that a drop of water takes from the place where it lands as a raindrop to the river dictates the state of the river. Does it pick up contaminants along the way? Does it move quickly, leading to erosion or flash floods almost immediately after a rain storm? Does it even travel over land to the river, or does it sink downwards, joining the groundwater reserves underground first? The answers to these questions shape the river and are shaped by the land in the watershed.
In this way, the quality of water in the river is an indicator as much as it is a goal in and of itself. If our rivers are clean and safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing, it means that the watershed is also healthy and functioning as an ecosystem should. That’s why the Minnesota River is the basis for our work, but why the landscape from Ortonville east to Shakopee and just about Fergus Falls south to Blue Earth is where we seek to make change.
The Jargon Disconnect
But here’s the thing: as much as it’s important that you understand a watershed, what’s more important is that many people don’t and that most of them are too embarrassed to ask the really good “dumb question.” If we do not overcome this language gap, it will not matter how well a few of us understand all the intricate workings of watersheds, water quality, and river health. As long as water professionals toss around words most people don’t know, the movement to improve water quality will never have the sort of citizen support and public backing it needs. This much I understand.
Eric Eckl, founder of the marketing and public relations firm Water Words that Work, LLC, explains this concept very well. Basically, if you start talking to someone about something he doesn’t understand, he might have the self-confidence to ask for clarification. But there’s also a good chance that he won’t want to admit ignorance and will instead seek to get out of the uncomfortable and embarrassing situation as quickly as possible.
So, what happens when I say, “Hello; nice to meet you. I’m the Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator for CURE. At CURE, we ‘broadly pursues strategies to raise public awareness and engage policy makers on environmental and community issues that affect the watershed.’”? If I’m lucky, the person I’m talking to says, “Oh, yes! I live in the Watonwan River watershed, so that’s kind of downstream from your offices in Montevideo.” And if I’m really lucky, the person says, “So, I have a kind of dumb question…” But there seem to plenty of opportunities for someone to feel alienated the moment I introduce myself, and that is not conducive to building a meaningful network.
That all makes sense. I don’t have an answer for this though: What should we do?
Is there an answer?
One tactic is to simply reach out and educate as many people as possible in the clearest possible way about what a watershed is. We are working on this. It’s why I sat down to make a map of the Minnesota River Watershed—because we didn’t even have one of those on our website. It’s why I’m writing this blog.
But I also know that there is a fine line between explaining something new and interesting to a stranger I meet at a gathering and offending someone by providing a simplistic explanation of a concept she already understands. And when I meet someone, I don’t know how to decide if she needs the explanation or not.
Another answer is to stay away from exclusive, jargon-y words. This makes a certain sense for a first meeting, but, given that our state agencies and policy-makers will keep on using them, we can’t keep the public in the dark. We also can’t lose the opportunity to explain the most important lesson that comes with understanding how watersheds work—that everything you do on the land affects the river, lake, or stream close to you.
I have also heard that we can take advantage of the relative ignorance about the word “watershed” to change the language entirely. Since the word watershed implies that the ultimate goal is to “shed,” or get rid of, water, maybe we should switch to another term, like “catchment basin,” which emphasizes the ability of the land to hold water. But if watershed is the word the DNR, the EPA, the NRCS, the UMN Extension office, and so on are using, would CURE just confuse the issue by talking about catchment basins? Does “catchment basin” even make more any more intuitive sense than “watershed”?
I don’t know, guys. If you have insights I would love to hear about them in the comments section. I do know that this is a conversation watershed professionals need to have, amongst themselves and with the public. Often, after someone asks me “the dumb question,” I ask them how I could make my explanation clearer, in what context they hear the word “watershed,” whether “catchment basin” makes more sense to them… In short, I try to have a conversation about the language that I use in my everyday work. So, please, feel encouraged to ask a water professional if you don’t understand what she is saying, and then also feel encouraged to critique the explanation you are given.
All talk and no action is no fun. But you can’t have action if you can’t talk about it. Talking, especially as we work together, is a really important place to start. Please, talk with me.
Post by Ariel Herrod, CURE’s Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator and was originally posted at cureriver.org
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